Discover Your Islands of Competence in Business and at Work

After today’s Easter egg hunt, I chatted briefly with our wonderful Director of Religious Education, Melissa.  “Noah was very helpful in Children’s Chapel today,” Melissa reported.  “He taught the rest of the children to sing a new song.”  I smiled slightly.  “Thanks, Melissa. We both know how much my son loves talking in front of a group.  He’s certainly not shy that way.” Melissa nodded.  “I know.  However, he’s getting to the age when being in a group of much younger children can be boring or even annoying.  However, I knew that one of Noah’s Islands of Competence was singing and music, so I asked him if he would teach the group the new song.  His attitude completely changed from boredom to engagement in the group activity, and he did a great job.”  Melissa observed.

I loved that term, Islands of Competence – Melissa taught me something new today.  And I knew that Melissa had used that technique with my husband Joel, to recruit him as a Religious Education instructor to teach the Spirit Play curriculum.  Six years ago, Melissa reached out to me first to get my feedback before she approached Joel.  “Joel’s a professional writer, and Spirit Play is about story-telling.  He’d be perfect for that role, do you think he’d be open to teaching Spirit Play?”  I remember thinking at the time how observant and insightful Melissa was, to identify that story-telling skill of Joel’s, and match it up with a need she had for a teacher with that particular skill set.  I confirmed Melissa’s observation.  “Joel’s great with kids and I agree with your assessment:  go for it.”  Melissa consequently approached Joel, who at first was hesitant and then came to love teaching Spirit Play.  Joel’s Island of Competence was a win-win:  a source of gratitude for parents who periodically express that gratitude for his work as a teacher, and a source of satisfaction for Joel, where his Island of Competence finds unexpected expression and benefit.

From a June 2005 article on the topic, Dr. Robert Brooks, the originator of the term Islands of Competence, explains:

While reflecting upon such negative comments, I thought, “Many of these children and adults seem to be drowning in an ocean of self-perceived inadequacy.” This image remained with me for a few moments, but was soon replaced by another, namely, “If there is an ocean of inadequacy, then there must be islands of competence – areas that have been or have the potential to be sources of pride and accomplishment.” Continuing with this metaphor, I recall thinking with some excitement, “We must help children and adults to identify and reinforce these islands so that at some point they become more dominant than the ocean of inadequacy.” (Emphasis mine.)

I believe that the excitement I experienced when I first conceived of this metaphor was prompted by the clarity with which it captured the strength-based approach that I had adopted in my work. I had previously published articles extolling the power of images and metaphors to convey ideas that would be remembered. Thus, it was my wish that when I referred to “islands of competence,” it would immediately evoke an image in others of the importance of shifting one’s focus from weaknesses to strengths, from pessimism to optimism.

As I have stated in earlier writings, my use of the metaphor “islands of competence” was not intended simply as a fanciful image but rather as a symbol of hope and respect, a reminder that all individuals have unique strengths and courage. If we can find and reinforce these areas of strength, we can create a powerful “ripple effect” in which children and adults may be more willing to venture forth and confront situations that have been problematic.

Melissa also gave me the gift of Dr. Brooks today, a subject-matter expert on two of my favorite topics, Appreciative Inquiry (Focusing on Strengths) and Small Wins.  I look forward to reading more about his work.

One of my Islands of Competence, as an example, is vocational match-making, a.k.a matching great candidates with great jobs at great organizations, a.k.a. Recruiting.  I’m proud to be a member of the Search Committee that placed Melissa in her significant role as our Director of Religious Education.

In the meantime, I can in turn share the gift:  what are your Islands of Competence?  What are the Islands of Competence of your team?  Of your job applicants?  What Islands of Competence are essential for the success of your career, your business, your organization, your team?  How can we leverage our respective and joint Islands of Competence to support the shared success of our respective careers,  and our local economy overall?

I look forward to the powerful ripples of possibilities we will continue to create together, in business and at work.


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