Why Managers Condone Incompetence

Aug 22, 2008

There is one thing worse than hiring the wrong person.

That is to hang on to the employee long after the evidence suggests you should let them go. This is a problem that challenges managers at all levels of the organizational hierarchy; both within our industry as well as with the clients we serve.

For our clients, it many times is a result of the recruiter not “implanting the DNA for success” that we covered in our last article.

Without getting into a discussion regarding hiring practices, let’s begin by simply stating that most managers, at one time or another, find themselves in a situation where they have an employee who should be terminated and yet, they take no action.

It may be a problem of unacceptable performance, poor attendance, negative attitude, or lack of congruence between the manager’s primary operating style and the functional preferences of the employee.

Regardless of the reason, the longer the manager holds on to that employee, thereby condoning their incompetence, the harder it will be for that manager to terminate them. Meanwhile, the entire work unit suffers because they must make up for the performance deficiencies of the problem employee.

Although all of this may be clear to the manager, in many instances, they still do not take action.

Remember…the highest performer does not establish the standard of performance. Rather, the poorest performer who management allows to remain part of the work unit establishes the standard of performance.

For over 35 years, I have studied the reasons why managers condone this incompetence. The results of my studies have produced four primary reasons:

The manager feels a need to be loved and accepted and, therefore, seeks it in the workplace from their employees.

This is a perfectly normal desire; everyone wants to be popular with his or her employees. However, when your primary goal is to be loved and accepted by them, your management style becomes predominately based on emotion and not logic. This inevitably compromises the objectivity of your decision making process, as you do not want to be rejected or disliked by those you supervise.

The manager hopes the problem will go away, if they ignore it.

Ignoring a problem is rarely the proper approach to take in solving it. Actually, it is counterproductive as the manager ends up building walls between themselves and the problem employee. The employee’s peers will note this. A growing empathy for the ignored employee can create bigger problems for the manager than the one they are trying to solve.

The manager lacks the willingness or ability to confront others.

Most managers do not feel comfortable with confrontation, nor should they. However, in some instances, this may end up to be the only way to get their message across to the problem employee.

When this occurs, it generally is an indication that two-way communication was never established with the problem employee in the first place. In fact, the employee may have been working in ignorance, not being aware that a performance problem even existed. Therefore, they are taken by surprise when confronted with termination. Under these circumstances, the employee’s reaction is quite predictable. The manager lacks objective performance standards and measurement on which to base a proper decision. In the absence of performance standards and measurement, both the manager and the employee for the most part, are working blind.

The manager does not know how to objectively measure the employee’s performance and, therefore, cannot properly communicate with them when performance problems develop.

Worse yet, the employee has no means by which they can measure their own performance. In fact, they may actually believe there is no problem. Although, at one time or another, a typical manager may succumb to any one of these four reasons, without a doubt, the primary reason why managers condone incompetence is reason number four. The lack of clearly defined and communicated job related performance standards, compromises the manager’s objectivity, misleads the employee; and, in fact, may actually create a situation where a “wrongful termination” suit could be the result.

Therefore, the manager should look at the organization, and in particular, their individual operating style and ask this question:

“Do my employees clearly understand, in objective, performance-based, job-related terms, what is expected of them on a daily basis?”

If the answer is anything other than an absolute “YES,” they have work to do.

Establishing and clearly communicating objective, job-related performance standards is the first and most important priority of a manager. Everything from their ability to attract and hire good employees to their performance on the job is dependent on these standards being properly established and communicated during and after the hiring process. Ultimately, since their success as a manager is determined by the performance of those they supervise, these standards will serve as the foundation block for their success as well.

As always, if you have questions or comments about this article or wish to receive my input on any other topic related to this business, just let me know. Your calls and emails are most welcome.