Posted on: 07/12/18

Gravity, Confidence and Competence

Walk into any given training course across the country and do a little test. Make sure that the trainer involved is experienced, having worked in their role for years. Beginners might not spot this…

Ask the trainer who in their class or group is projecting the most confidence in the subject at hand. Then ask them who is the most competent to carry out the task they are being trained for. Hopefully they’ll spot the difference.

Gravity certainly does.

So often individuals and even whole groups can project a sense of confident accomplishment, the feeling that they’ve already ticked all the boxes on this course, that they have the subject mastered. Sometimes, that their time could be better spent elsewhere; they’ve been doing the job for years, why spend time in training? In the area of rope based rescue this is often the case. Confidence is exuded. They’ve done the course before, maybe many times. Or they’ve done a rigging and lifting course somewhere. Tied loads of knots. There’s a lot of confidence.

The problem is, confidence doesn’t really help you much when faced with the stark reality that unless you tie that knot correctly, you’re going to deck out when you hang off it.

Or your friend will.

Confidence should be found where competence dwells, not where it is absent.

Confidence doesn’t do you many favours when you’re holding a belay device incorrectly, only finding this out when your colleague has a main line failure, shock loading your system. The hiss of rope shooting through metal briefly before a thud. Confidence looks more like foolishness then. Or how about when your rigging angles are so wide it looks like you could play a note of music on them? Or a special knot you always use, which a trucker/ fisherman/ your grandma taught you, which you confidently think is fine…

Gravity shows little mercy to confidence without competence.

Trainers so often come across this divergence of confidence and competence. A lack of competence and excess of confidence. Time and again we find those who can ‘talk the talk’ but not ‘walk the walk’. Confidence should be found where competence dwells, not where it is absent.

So what is competence? Well, the Work at Height regulations (2005) state at least that competence is needed:

(5) Every employer shall ensure that no person engages in any activity, including organisation, planning and supervision, in relation to work at height or work equipment for use in such work unless he is competent to…

But what is competence? Regarding the management of hazards in the workplace, the Chair of the HSE (Health and Safety Executive), Judith Hackitt, defines competence as ‘the ability for every director, manager and worker to recognise the risks in operational activities and then apply the right measures to control and manage those risks.’ Two words here are important to note: Recognise and Apply. Can someone spot the problem? Can they deal with it? Do they have sufficient theoretical understanding of the task in hand? Do they have sufficient previous experience to deal with a defect if it was identified?

As I write this I can recall a highly confident individual I was once working with. He was complaining about having to take time to re-validate their qualification (he was a Very Important Person in a position of management, and made sure we all knew it…). While informing us of his importance and busy work schedule he put his climbing helmet on backwards, continuing to talk. I kept quiet. I didn’t need to say anything, we were in a classroom, without any reasonably foreseeable risk to him other than (what I certainly hoped would be) crushing embarrassment which might jolt him out of his complacency when he realized why the rest of the group were laughing at him!

So, my question is, what examples of excessive confidence and insufficient competence have you seen in the work at height and rope rescue world? Has it all ended in disaster? What can we learn from it? In what areas of our industry are there blind spots where people’s lack of competence is masked by their confidence?