Since my cranky post last week titled Do we suck at the basics? I’ve had an eye out for writing on incompetence and suckage. Over at Harvard Business John Baldoni, author of a slew of bestsellers, had a recent post called How to fight management incompetence.
He offers three bits of advice:
- Link competency to promotion
- Hold people accountable
- Keep competencies relevant
Ok. Got it. This is good and sensible, sure. But the platitude part is easy. The real thing missing is conviction. Being accountable takes courage, something that doesn’t come with a degree or years of experience. Plenty of cowards have lurked in executive circles for decades. I believe most people just don’t have the guts to do the thing any idiot knows is right and this includes many managers. How many courageous people do you know? It can’t be more than 1 out of 10, maybe 1 out of 5. There is no special courage pill yet for VPs, so they have the same kinds of spines as the rest of us.
The big incompetence crime committed by VPs is leaving incompetent managers in place for too long. My theory: by the time the CEO knows a VP stinks, the whole org has known about it for months. The smart people have been making plans to leave or are working to cover their assses. By the time the CEO gets around to taking action, it’s way too late. And often the action taken is whitewashed: no mention is made of how the VP or middle manager utterly failed (e.g. “Fred has decided it’s time for something new.”) The denial lives on, the lie propagates, making it easier for more denials and lies the next time around.
All most employees want is for the people above them to be honest more of the time. Even if things stink, honesty makes it possible for people to maintain their sanity (“ok. So you at least see what I’m seeing. Thanks.”). But it also makes solutions possible, since people are trying to solve the same issues. Bob can go to his boss with suggestions and feedback only if he understand what it is his boss is really concerned about.
The key to fighting many management ills is transparency. Much of what’s said between high level managers should be said to line level employees. Perhaps not in the same cavalier or blunt terms, but the core messages should be heard all the way down. We can learn much from sports teams, as their performances are televised and recorded. Stats for each player are kept from every game, and season win-loss records for every coach. No last place team can ever be whitewashed by a cowardly VP, the business is far too transparent for those kinds of lies to be accepted even by fans. But a last place team in a company can hide and pretend in all sorts of ways if the manager chickens out. Digital workplaces are the opposite of transparency unless efforts are made to express true opinions of what’s going well and what isn’t. Only the people in power can do this. And you don’t need magic metrics. The opinion of team leaders is a sufficient barometer: and if it isn’t, they shouldn’t be team leaders.
Want to fight management incompetence? First move is getting the truth out in the open. Second, demand people in power take responsibility for that truth. If they resist, they should give up their management stripes or find another company to work for. End of story. Sports team managers are fired too often, but there’s a nugget of the right idea in their firings. They are held intensely accountable for the results of their team, no excuses. Most corporations can learn from this kind of commitment to the truth.