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Dealing with Earnest Incompetence

For some time, I’ve wanted to write about those people in our lives – work, home, anywhere – who seem to try hard, or who seem well-intentioned and very sincere, yet who do not manage to hold up their end of the relationship in some way.

I wanted to focus on those employees for example about whom you might hear:

• “He’s been here forever; we just sort of ignore him!”
• “She’s the nicest person in the world, but she drives me nuts!”
• “I find every way I can to work around him.”

I wanted to write about:

• How systems adapt to them
• How convoluted processes are established (formal or informal) that attempt to compensate for their poor performance
• How competent peers, bosses and subordinates become either protective, or frustrated, or resentful, or all three
• How people will talk about them but not with them
• How this is all done out of a mistaken notion of kindness and sensitivity

I wanted to write about them, BUT…experience tells me that behind every earnestly incompetent person who has more than, say, a few months tenure, there is a leader who is complicit!! In fact, surrounding that person is a system, a host of people who, in conscious and unconscious ways, sustain the status quo. So in this sense, then, the earnestly incompetent person is a symptom of a larger issue: People in the system are not dealing honestly and respectfully with reality.

Is this sounding tough? Insensitive? Heartless? Has Staropoli finally decided to side with Chainsaw Al Dunlop in an effort to purge industry of all “fat”? Has he lost all sense of compassion and mercy, of justice and kindness?

Think about it:

• Is it compassionate to avoid a difficult but necessary conversation because you’re worried about “how they’ll take it?”
• Is it merciful to allow them to continue in the delusion that all is well?
• Is it just to deny honest feedback to someone who works for you?
• Is it kind to speak behind that person’s back about how difficult they are, or to encourage their peers’ judgments and lack of directness by secretly urging them to “bear up?”

If you do find yourself in a situation similar to the ones I’ve described, the starting point, as always, is self-reflection. For example:

• Have you become emotionally entangled with and protective of this person?
• Have you been reluctant to risk conflict, to appear insensitive, or to have a direct, if difficult conversation?
• Have you deceived yourself, “earnestly” believing that you are doing this person a favor by protecting him/her from reality (signaling your earnest incompetence?)?
• Have you minimized the impact of this situation on the rest of the team as a way of procrastinating?
• Have you fancied yourself as the protector of the weak, a kindly capitalist (compassionate conservative?)? Do you see the arrogance in this belief?

What other strategies are helpful? Some thoughts:

As the starting point: An honest assessment of the situation and probing self-reflection. E.g.: With training or coaching, is this person capable of ever performing well in this position? Do you have the will, the time, the resources and the patience to dedicate to this? What resources might this person need beyond your coaching? OR: is it abundantly clear that this person and the company are best served by parting ways now?

If you decide to work to retain the person, you will need:

• A commitment to develop a more honest, direct, and respectful relationship, one based on dialogue about reality, and characterized by compassionate truthfulness about strengths and limitations.
• A mutual sorting out of what is or is not working, including how the person experiences the work. This can include a genuine focus on actual, proven strengths – and how to capitalize on those strengths; as well as a discussion of limitations – and how to minimize them.
• A commitment to steer complainers back to the individual, offering them coaching on how to deliver feedback with respect.
• Coaching the “incompetent” person on how to solicit, receive and process this feedback.
• Parameters and consequences. What are the agreed upon indicators that this person is performing well? What are the consequences if performance does not shift sufficiently? What are the timelines?

I have tremendous hope for situations like this. I have seen phenomenal results when the leader makes the decision to address the situation directly, starting with an honest self-reflection. I’ve seen new life sparked when honest dialogue generates wholesome changes in responsibility. I’ve seen others in the system applaud the leader’s resolve to address the situation effectively. And I’ve also seen sensitive terminations appreciated by the employee.

This reminds me of the phrase I’ve used in helping people increase assertion skills and attitudes:
Dealing with REALITY works better for everyone in the long term than does conjecture, fantasy or avoidance.

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