Culture of incompetence is a phrase that us, as resident doctors, came up to describe certain hospitals that have a culture that encourages a passive form of incompetence by discouraging productive change.
This does not mean that they encourage residents to make mistakes or to be incompetent in a general sense. Rather, it means that we are encouraged, either directly or indirectly, to abide by unspoken rules that are prohibitive of increased efficiency or innovative approaches to patient care. To give an example that I had mentioned in my previous posts, I had once worked in a hospital where working fast to speed up patient care was seen as putting pressure on the team and being a bad learner. Other residents had similar experiences in this hospital, where they were asked to adjust to the team’s pace, even when it was clear that there were areas of improvement needed to make the team more efficient. The hospital had set up an unspoken rule that it was happy with the status quo, despite the fact that it was no longer serving the giant and ever growing population of patients, resulting in months or even year long backlogs of patients to see, and patients waiting in the emergency department for days just waiting for a bed to become available in one of the inpatient units.
How does a culture of incompetence form? I believe that it starts from a seed of “leaders” that believe that what they are doing is near perfect, if not perfect, and that there is no room for improvement. Any attempts at productive change is seen as stirring up trouble or even being a bad learner. This kind of culture in turn produces an environment where those who agree with this worldview are the ones who decide to stay after their mandatory rotation ends, and the saga continues.
This kind of workplace culture can cause traumatic moral injury in young and motivated learners, possibly making them lose that spark that keeps them wanting to innovate and improve. Perhaps the reason why healthcare has seen so few innovative changes in the past many years is because this culture is pervasive in medicine. As residents, we get placed in a lottery system that inevitably lands us at a hospital with such a culture at some point during our training. While I wish I could say that most of us come out of the experience with our eagerness and dreams of a better future intact, it often marks the beginnings of becoming a bitter and burnt out physician.
I noticed this change in myself more recently when I pulled out a garnet bracelet from my jewelry drawer for work today. One of my daily rituals as a witch includes picking out a gemstone to support me at work and to set intentions for the day. Garnet, besides from being a protective stone, also encourages vitality, leadership, and positive growth. Since being burned by this culture of incompetence and many months afterwards, I was afraid to wear this to work in case it would push me to stand out more than a resident “should”, attracting negative attention and criticism. Today, for the first time in almost a year, I took out this bracelet for me to wear to work, feeling finally ready to return to my old self again.
If you feel that a productive and growth-oriented behavior that is appreciated by patients or clients is being met with resistance and even animosity in a new environment, I implore you to take a pause and to evaluate the environment before changing yourself. If you could find a way to hold onto that spark inside of you to ignite torches of positive change, a day will come when you are free to light up the world as you are meant to do.
Stay strong, my friends. Better days are just around the corner.