Incompetence: Do You Not Notice or Just Tolerate?

incompetenceIncompetence is pervasive in all organizations, even really well run ones.  No company is immune to having some percentage of their staff either actually be incompetent or act incompetent.  As a consultant, I often go into organizations and am surprised by the lack of skills or lack of ability that exists at many levels, and appears to be accepted.  Do leaders notice incompetence and tolerate it or not even notice?  Interesting question for sure. 

When I engage with companies, I become aware of people who have been moved from department to department because they haven’t performed well. I guess the hope is that maybe they are just in the wrong role or department and eventually we will find them a home where they will turn into solid performers.  I’ve had many conversations with executives related to someone they know on an interpersonal level that causes problems, yet the executive feels they are so valuable technically they put up with them.  Then there is the manager who tells me how, years ago, this person was wonderful and someone influenced them to change and they can change back.  Or the executive who tells me how many mistakes people on their team are making and how many conversations they have had with them about improving and nothing changes.  I guess they are looking for me to sprinkle fairy dust on them or their people and magically it’s all better. 

About a year ago I engaged with a new client.  For four or five years they had asked someone on their leadership team to tell them what opportunities they wanted for themselves going forward.  Each year they tossed around the same question and got nowhere toward an answer.  The reason for this was that this leader had limited skills beyond what they were currently doing, and no desire to learn other areas of the business.  Each year, they worked to find a place for this manager because they liked the individual on a personal level.  The organization had outgrown this manager, probably a couple of years before I began working with them, yet no one was willing to say that out loud.  They weren’t incompetent in the sense that they couldn’t do their job, but if we define incompetence as ineffective or lacking in ability then they were indeed incompetent as they were constrained by their current skill set and desires. 

Do higher ups in an organization notice incompetence and tolerate it, or do they not notice?  Some of both, for sure.  Here are a couple of my observations: 

  • The longer someone has been with a company, the easier it is for managers to overlook their lack of skill, ability, or desire to develop. 
  • When someone is well liked on a personal level it’s easier to ignore what they aren’t doing or doing well. 
  • Companies often blame themselves when someone is incompetent as not having trained them well or changes that occurred in the company that might have impacted someone’s competency. 
  • Every company and leader dislikes having difficult conversations with team members about performance, so they ignore and overlook as much as possible. 
  • Most companies do not have defined performance metrics for positions so how an employee interprets their performance is very different than how management does. 
  • We are all busy people and we focus on getting the work out the door.  It’s easy to ignore topics such as missed deadlines and revisions in the spirit of getting work done. 
  • Because others in the company aren’t complaining loudly we can simply ignore what we don’t want to see. 
  • Ignorance is bliss.  What we don’t see, we don’t have to address. 
  • Tolerating poor performance is, at some level, easier than actually dealing with it.  Thus, after a while we don’t even recognize it exists anymore. 
  • Executives and managers take their eye off the ball.  I believe in trust but verify, regardless of how long someone is with your company or their role.   
  • Companies outgrow people and that’s always sad.  Because leaders don’t know how to deal with this situation with gratitude and grace, they ignore it. 

I think I’m a pretty good communicator and willing to address the difficult conversations.  However, I don’t love having to have them.  The discussions around performance, attitude, engagement, etc., are not happy conversations and we are always dealing with the other person’s feelings and emotions.  Yucky stuff for sure.  For those leaders, and this is most of the people in leadership, we don’t teach them how to have these challenging conversations.  We never tell them how to have the conversation with someone that helped the company get to where it is now, and can’t help them get to the next step.  How can we tell someone that and appreciate all they have done for us, and handle with grace? So, we move them from position to position, where we feel they can do the least amount of harm, overpay them for today’s assignment because they have been making more, and hope they will retire, or leave on their own.   

If we don’t train managers how to mentor, coach, guide, and develop people, how would they know what to do?  When there are no defined performance metrics then any level of performance is acceptable and subject to the whims of the individual.  When we focus on what needs to be done instead of who we need for what needs done, we tolerate mediocre performance.  Who doesn’t want an all-star team?  Of course, it starts with bringing the right people onto the team, but after that it’s about you as the leader.  I’m not a big sports fanatic, yet even I know that the coach of a team makes a huge difference in the team’s success. Good performers can become great with the right coaching, mediocre performers step up or step out, and the best of the best develop further, take leadership roles, and help the team in many ways. 

As a leader, it is your responsibility to do what is in the best interest of the team whether that’s your department or the entire company.  What might be best for the company at times may not be what’s best for an individual.  Without sounding callous, this is business.  Sacrificing the team or success for one or two individuals, for whatever your reasons, doesn’t demonstrate caring — it demonstrates a lack of caring for everyone.  I ask you, when you are done reading this article, are you tolerating incompetence, regardless of your good intentions? Or are you not even noticing?  I bet at one time you noticed and didn’t tolerate.  So, what’s changed?  And what has to happen to have you not tolerate incompetence, ignore it, or not even notice it is occurring? 

© 2017 Incedo Group, LLC 

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