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Conservation of Competence

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Adam: It seems that he is the one who ended up with all the competence in this book.
Ifi: It had to go somewhere.
Adam: The law of the conservation of competence.
Adam: It is science.

There is only so much competence a given faction can distribute amongst its membership.

Put practically: If the boss is smart, then his subordinates are stupid. If the minions are smart, the boss must be an idiot.

This is seen mostly in dramatic animated shows and comedy as a kind of counterbalance to keep the overall effectiveness of a faction moderate without being too dangerous or easy. On the comedy side, the inherent inequality and dysfunction of a group with such a large breach in abilities is a comedy goldmine. Expect to see competent leaders ask "Why am I surrounded with incompetents?" and competent underlings to sigh at their boss' stupidity.

In the event everyone in the faction is dumb, they're likely a Goldfish Poop Gang designed to be the Butt-Monkey everyone laughs at and maybe sympathizes with a little. In the rare event everyone in it is competent, then they're likely going to be understaffed, the ground level Mooks/Redshirts are less than effectual, or they are disadvantaged in some other way.

If, instead, everybody takes turns being stupid, then they're passing around the Idiot Ball. For extra laughs (or groans) can be overlapped inversely with Fixed Relative Strength: the more competent someone is, the weaker they are in combat. Sub-trope of Too Many Cooks Spoil the Soup.

Compare Competence Zone, where the only people who are competent are those of the protagonists' age.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Pokémon: The Series:
    • The anime gives us the presumably competent Giovanni, whose subordinates are the one and only Team Rocket Terrible Trio. A prime example was their second ever onscreen interaction: Jessie and James are trapped on an island (and separated from Meowth and their other Pokémon) with only a payphone as communication. Seeing as they have no money, they decide to collect call their boss. After being greeted by a grumpy Giovanni warning them that whoever is calling better have a good reason for making him spend money on the call, Jessie and James are stupid enough to start reciting their motto. Cue Giovanni hanging up wondering who the hell those idiots were. This operates on two levels because Meowth is the competent sidekick to the bumbling Jesse and James.
    • Other subordinates of Team Rocket are generally portrayed as more competent then the Team Rocket trio the audience is most familiar with, although this is very much dependent on who is writing the episode.
  • One Piece: Monkey D. Luffy is easily one of the dumbest members of the crew. On the other hand he is smart enough to collect reasonably talented and intelligent True Companions to offset this. He actually mentioned this in the 'Arlong arc,' admitting his faults like unable to wield swords, navigate, cook and even lying. He knows how to protect his crew and kick ass though, which served him well. He also does provide rare moments of insight through his simple-minded wisdom.
    • This also goes for the Marines. Genuine competence seems to be a rather rare attribute, whereas the majority of the grunts and officers are of the "RAWR, kill 'em" mindset. Some are dangerously competent, with Akainu being one despite being the most blood thirsty.
  • Played with in Fullmetal Alchemist. Father is smart, but his minions the homunculi have varying degrees of intelligence — for instance, Lust is smart, Gluttony is an idiot, and Envy and Wrath are mostly smart but sometimes make bad decisions and Sloth can't be bothered to use whatever intelligence he might have because thinking for himself would involve exerting himself.
  • In the Sailor Moon 90's anime, the Shitennou of the Dark Kingdom would have done much better if they could have chucked Queen Beryl out the window. Beryl's a Bad Boss who routinely screws over her subordinates by micromanaging them and then kills them for failing - even if their tactical failures were leading to a strategic victory. The Shitennou are exceptionally competent (if somewhat flawed) adversaries, and each of them manages to get the Sailor Senshi on the ropes more than once, often despite their boss' "help." Later on, when Beryl deploys a brainwashed Prince Endymion, he proves to be worse than useless due to his Noble Demon nature. He routinely screws up Kunzite's plans because he finds them unethical, but Kunzite can't send him off to work on something irrelevant because Beryl forces Kunzite to drag him along.

    Comic Books 

    Comic Strips 
  • Compare the Pointy-Haired Boss of Dilbert fame to the engineers working for him. Not every engineer *cough*Wally*cough* is completely competent, but there are hints that even Wally could be competent if he cared. Which he doesn't. Wally is explicitly based on a guy Scott Adams knew who apparently discovered that the company they worked for had a very generous severance package for worthless employees, so he applied more creative effort to qualifying for it than most people do to jobs they've always dreamed of doing.
    • The PHB's bosses (when we see them) are even dumber.
    • The Pointy-Haired Boss has been wearing the stupid hat for so long that it's now occasionally funny to write a strip where he is the Reasonable Authority Figure plagued by the lazy Wally, the naysaying Dilbert, and the belligerent Alice. They're so used to having to defend themselves this way that they won't listen on the rare occasions when PHB's management perspective makes him right.
  • The low-level, minimum wage workers in Retail love pointing out the stupid and/or inane policies made by their bosses.

    Fan Works 
  • In episode 4 of Sword Art Online Abridged, two members of the Titans Hand guild seem to realize pretty quick that Kirito may be a major threat before they even attack, one even putting together the following:
    Mook 1: Um, Boss? A thought occurs, this guy thought he was going up against Laughing Coffin note , but he still just brought himself and a small child. Are we sure we want to mess with this guy?
  • In With This Ring Bane and his henchmen keep asking their boss Truggs to stop monologuing to the downed OL and let them finish him before he calls for back-up. Truggs tells them to shut up. They also question why Truggs is ordering them to give OL a chance to be spared.
  • In Shinji And Warhammer 40 K Kaoru discusses this trope during a mental monologue. SEELE and NERV recruited the best minds, both scientific and military, in the lead-up to the Angle attacks, forcing the other agencies to pick through the leavings. As a result other projects like Earth's Cradle ended up with staff that were not only mediocre but also less sane than the canon NERV staff.

    Films — Animation 
  • Lady and the Tramp: Aunt Sarah is dumb, the siamese cats are smart.
  • Sleeping Beauty: Maleficent is smart, her ogre minions are dumb.
  • Robin Hood (1973): Prince John is dumb, the Sheriff of Nottingham and even more so Sir Hiss are smart.
  • Aladdin: Abis Mal, who, whether leading a gang of bandits who are smarter than him or being the semi-willing pawn of an evil genie who's smarter than he is, is pretty much guaranteed to be more of a liability than an asset.
  • The Lion King (1994): Scar is smart, the hyenas are dumb.
  • Hercules: Hades is smart, Pain and Panic are dumb.
  • The Emperor's New Groove: Yzma is smart, Kronk is dumb.
  • Played with in The Great Mouse Detective. Professor Ratigan is a genius and his henchmen are surprisingly good at what they do (Even Fidget, who manages to ambush the main characters twice). The trouble is Basil of Baker Street is just so good at what he does that he evokes this trope in the villains purely by comparison.

  • Sinterklaas (a variant of Santa Claus) is traditionally accompanied by an assistant named Zwarte Piet. In older stories, Piet is a Bumbling Sidekick while Sinterklaas is competent; in modern stories, perhaps to counteract the controversies about Piet's race, henote  is a Hypercompetent Sidekick to a kindly but absent-minded boss.

  • In the short story "The Minimum Man" by Robert Sheckley, a man who is clumsy, accident-prone and generally incompetent is sent to open up a planet for colonization. He is assisted by a robot which does all of the heavy work excellently. During the story, the man (who is away from the public disapproval of the rest of society for the very first time) slowly becomes less clumsy, less accident-prone, and more competent. But he noticed that as he got better, the robot got more clumsy and accident-prone. When he asked about this, his boss cheerfully admitted that this was deliberate on their part, because they could not count on the standard colonist to get better, and they literally and specifically wanted to preserve a level of incompetence across the entire team.
  • In The Hobbit, Thorin and later Bilbo were the only ones who had enough sense and wits to not get immediately jumped by trolls, having a weapon out in a forest and thinking of a plan to escape Mirkwood. The rest of the dwarves may or may not get a moment before a major battle.
  • In First Among Sequels, the ruling Commonsense Party has built up a massive surplus of governmental stupidity via a decade of competent and sensible government, and one of the book's plot arcs is their trying to find something sufficiently moronic to use up all that stupidity.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake of M*A*S*H would never have gotten by without people like Hawkeye and Radar around. Although Blake was a highly competent surgeon, he was an incompetent administrator.
    • Frank Burns, on the other hand, had neither medical or administrative competence.
    • Thoroughly averted when Colonel Potter comes on board as he is both a competent surgeon and a decent adminstrator.
  • Gilligan's Island. Only one person in any given episode could be competent. Not always the same person, either. Of course if they were competent they'd be off the island. So, yeah.
  • Blair Waldorf and her "merry band of psychos" (her minions, that is) in Gossip Girl. Or as Blair puts it... "Once again the universe has proven that anything you can do, I can do better."
  • Both averted and subverted in The West Wing, where everyone is a genius, but things tend to fall apart rapidly if any one member is incapacitated or missing.
  • This trope goes both ways in various Star Trek shows. The seven or so senior officers of the ship are competent. Above them are Insane Admirals and Obstructive Bureaucrats. Below them are Red Shirts. So there are incompetent leaders and incompetent supporters, with the competent main characters squarely in the middle of the command structure.
  • In Band of Brothers Major Winters goes through a whole list of people who are incompetent to some degree or another. One can't read a map, another yells a lot, Dyke (who he's trying to replace) can't make any decisions and tends to wander off at odd times (even in combat!). He is eventually able to send one of the three home, but still can't replace Dyke as the only real option, Buck, was taken out due to a severe case of trench foot (in reality, because of severe shell shock after seeing two of his best friends lose their legs). During the battle of Foy (Part of the Battle of the Bulge), Dyke finally gets replaced by Speirs, who is all about blowing snipers out of their holes, and charging first into battle in such a way the enemy is too stunned to shoot. Speirs did both of those things within minutes of taking command of Easy Company.
  • In the first series of Blackadder, Blackadder is a complete idiot, with Baldrick as his Hypercompetent Sidekick. In successive series, Blackadder gets more intelligent and Baldrick gets more stupid. As Blackadder gets smarter, he also gets further from power, and those who sit above him are pretty universally stupid and horrible.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The Lyran Commonwealth in BattleTech has this as a stereotype for a long time. The upper ranks of the Lyran Commonwealth Armed Forces are dominated by Social Generals who got their rank through political connections and are generally highly incompetent. The reason the Commonwealth has endured for so long despite this is because their lower-ranked officers tend to be some of the best in the Inner Sphere due to the high quality of their military colleges.

    Video Games 
  • In general, the low-level grunts of evil organizations in Pokémon tend to be rather harmless and incapable of doing anything more complicated than dog-kicking on their own.
    • Pokémon Diamond and Pearl (and especially Platinum) give us the rather intimidating Cyrus at the head of Team Galactic. His low-level flunkies don't have the slightest idea what the Big Evil Plan even is because it would result in said grunts, and everything else in the Universe, ceasing to exist. Cyrus is also a far better trainer than the average grunts. The final fight with him in Platinum is easily one of the hardest battles of the game.
    • One scene in Pokémon X and Y, where the Team Flare Admin volunteers important information for no reason, something which their accompanying Grunt calls them out on:
      Team Flare Admin: I'm afraid we're going to have to ask you to turn back. The Legendary Pokémon IS at the end of this chamber, after all.
      Team Flare Grunt: Why did you tell them that? Who would even do something like that?
  • Touhou Project:
    • Sakuya Izayoi, Ninja Maid extraordinaire, has to use her time manipulation to turn the Scarlet Devil Mansion Bigger on the Inside, and then single-handedly guard and clean said mansion because, in spite of having a virtually inexaustable army of guards and other maids, they are so universally lazy and incompetent that they are as likely to cause harm as good. Her boss, vampire Ojou Remilia is capable of being competent most of the time but, being permanently a child, both physically and emotionally, she would rather just play (and force Sakuya to set up those games for her). During Touhou Koumakyou ~ the Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, Sakuya even turns into The Determinator, fighting three conseuctive BossBattles (two were mid-boss battles) in defense of her mistress. What is she paid for this kind of work? She gets a room in the mansion and she gets to keep the outfit. It ain't easy being Meido.
    • Several similar comparisons could be made to other girls in the touhou fame (Youmu, a samurai whose boss forces her to use her skills as a gardener and ocasionally as a cook while her boss is a whimsical Womanchild maybe) as well as the trope still applying but the other way around (Komachi, a slacker Shinigami, and her Boss Shiki Eiki the Yamaxanadu, who takes her job very seriously; Reisen, who is constantly scolded for her screwups by her master Eirin, who invented ETERNAL LIFE). What really can destroy the trope's validity is when we consider their abilities as Danmaku Boss Fights. While Sakuya can be the perfect maid in her daily life, she still pales in comparison to the bratty child Remilia when it boils down to their world's selected form of fighting. In fact, one could think there's too much competence in every house.
    • If you think about it though, this trope applies when looking at every game in itself. In the aforementioned example with with members of the Scarlet Devil Mansion, you have Cirno, "Daiyousei" and Rumia to offset the competence of the others.
  • The higher difficulty settings in Star Wars: Battlefront apply this to the side you're playing. The better you do, the dumber your allies get. You can pick off 25% of the enemy forces single-handedly and you can still lose.
  • Notably averted in the Trails Series. With the exception of second string member Gilbert, who is an incompetent Butt-Monkey, and one instance of Weismann holding the Villain Ball too long and falling into a trap that was set in the expectation of him being unable to resist the temptation to Kick the Dog, everyone in the Society of Ouroboros is extremely competent (if quirky), which results in them being a constant threat in a series that has been going for nine games in and counting as of 2019. Thankfully, this also applies to the organizations opposing them, with the Bracer Guild and the Septian Church, for example, employing many highly competent people.
  • While Crash Bandicoot is rather consistently a wacky Idiot Hero, to what degree often varies according to the handling of the rest of the cast. In the original games and It's About Time, he is the one crazy bungling fool among a relatively sane and serious acting group, verging on being their comic relief. In games like Crash Nitro Kart and Crash of the Titans however, everyone else is even more bombastic and deranged than he is, making Crash more of a goofy-acting straight man.

    Web Animation 
  • In Pucca, Tobe is a very good ninja and has very good plans sometimes, but he would achieve more alone than with his ninjas followers.

    Web Original 
  • Cinnamon Bunzuh! provides the page quote, but it's an atypical example, noting that the villain became much more competent in the same volume where the heroes have all been Flanderized into incompetence.

    Western Animation 
  • The adults generally don't have a clue what's going on in the town of South Park. It is always the kids who ultimately end whatever crisis is occurring that week. In the early episodes, competence also extended to Chef, though he was easily Distracted by the Sexy.
    • Even more on point: in early episodes, the Mayor was portrayed as The Ditz, obsessed with her own image but too stupid to even fake competency. Now that all of the other adults are dumb, she's either just one idiot among many or an Only Sane Woman who's Surrounded by Idiots.
  • Duke Igthorne and his ogres in Disney's Adventures of the Gummi Bears. His right-hand ogre, Toadstool, is the smartest of the bunch, and is still barely more intelligent than the furniture.
  • Both versions regularly appear in Kim Possible. Dr. Drakken is generally clueless about everything other than mad science, relying on Shego to fight and steal things for him. Señor Senior Senior is a perfectly capable villain (allowing for the fact that his goal is to entertain himself rather than to succeed in his schemes) who is constantly frustrated by his son Señor Senior Junior's lack of proper villainous spirit.
  • The Monarch and his minions from The Venture Bros. on Adult Swim are a classic example. The minions seem much more savvy than The Monarch himself, and so does The Monarch's girlfriend, Dr. Girlfriend. The Monarch isn't so much incompetent than just obsessed with being Rusty Venture's nemesis above all else.
  • In Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, Scratch and Grounder (and sometimes Coconuts, as well) are Dr. Robotnik's incompetent lackeys, who he only keeps around because he's too cheap to build anything more reliable. Of course, Grounder once proved that, were he more intelligent, he could be a far greater threat than his creator. Robotnik himself toyed with this (while usually rather bumbling himself, he often appeared as a Not-So-Harmless Villain whenever his minions put up an exceptionally poor fight against Sonic).
  • Most missions in Sonic the Hedgehog (SatAM) were fronted by Sonic, Sally and Antoine. Sally was physically vulnerable, but usually more strategically competent than the powerful but childish and reckless Sonic, while Antoine was a useless imbecile that usually hindered stealth operations with his clumsiness or cowardice.
  • In The Dreamstone some of Zordrak and Urpgor's plans may actually work if not for assigning them to Sgt Blob and his men. When Blob's team actually gets something right however, it is usually Urpgor (or in rare cases even Zordrak) that pull the Idiot Ball. Rufus and Amberley started off as more competent heroes to contrast the Urpneys, but eventually evolved into Fools not much more apt than them, making it more a game of fate than skill. Their own master the Dreammaker and the Wuts aren't immune to this, but still considerably more competent and powerful than them. Used erratically in later episodes, where Rufus and Amberley revert to being more competent, but only when their peers aren't around to outshine them.

    Real Life 
  • Oddly enforced in some real military organizations. Everyone in a certain group — usually of a certain rank or graduating class — is rated based on performance, and put in order from best to worst. Now, normally it would seem fairest to award assignments based on merit: the #1 performer gets the job she wants, and the worst performer gets put where no-one else wants to go. This leads to a problem: The place no-one wants to go gets all the bad performers, and then that organization does worse work, leading even fewer people to want to go there, leading to even worse work. To prevent this, the organization distributes its incompetence: the group is split into 3rds: top, bottom, and middle. These are then ranked. The top of each category gets the job they asked for; the bottom of each gets put where they're needed. While it may not be entirely fair to the "middling" performers, this ensures that every organization gets a mix of good and bad people and prevents any one place from having a large group of abysmal performers.