How to fight management incompetence

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.

12 Responses to “How to fight management incompetence”

  1. Tim Walker

    Good post, Scott. A couple of connections come to mind:

    1. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the “algorithms” that drive our performance. Not a specific skill like “Keep your inbox clean,” but a generalized practice like “Don’t develop backlogs.”

    Your post reminds me that one of our key algorithms — across hierarchies, industries, whatever — ought to be “Have some guts, and show it.”

    2. Thinking of transparency, tt’s amazing, when you observe the tippy-top performers, just how honest they are about themselves and the world around them. They don’t blame external inputs for their performance. They seem to operate on the principle that they are responsible for everything that happens to them. The best business leaders combine this with enough emotional intelligence that they can deliver bad news without being abrasive: “This isn’t good enough, and you and I both know it needs to get better. How can I help you make it better?”

    What you’ve said here is important, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg for the power of transparency in transforming organizations.

    1. John

      My manager acts as if he could ignore me 80% of the time. Answering 20% of my emails and only those who interest him and not the ones who are asking for transparency.
      He’s also late at every meetings, including client meetings, making me think that I should reprimand him , as if I were the manager!

      He’s constantly lying to me, probably thinking that i believe in his BS and when i challenge the things he says or try to make him accountable he suddenly slips or ad more BS to the ones he already told.

      The problem is that this manager has all the support from top executives and is one of them, I’m not and it’s just too difficult to apply your advices.

      The thing is: I need the money this is why I put up with this sorry clown….


  2. Scott

    David: my intent is not to be an idiot, so thanks for helping me look like less of one :) Fixed.

  3. Scott

    Good comments Tim – On your last comment, I seriously doubt that an exec can have a transparent, open organization if they do not embody those ideals in their own behavior and personality. It just doesn’t work. You can have all the proclamations in the world (“We will be the most open, honest, courageous team in history!”), but if on the first day there is an issue and the manager B.Ses his way through it, or blames someone else, or pretends it doesn’t exist, that becomes the behavior that gets emulated instead of the proclamation.

    This stuff is hard but not for intellectual, theory, or knowledge reasons – it’s more about character and self-awareness reasons.

  4. Meg Bear

    of course the rub comes when you are working with the underperforming person directly via coaching. It’s not really appropriate to share that with the rest of the organization and yet the performance is probably observed by all. This is why it gets tricky. How do you do the right thing by the individual and still be transparent?

  5. Scott

    Meg: you’re right, it is tricky. But I think there are definitely ways to handle it.

    The easy way is the underperformer does it himself. If I’m a team lead and I know I’m failing to make decisions quickly enough, nothing stops me from telling the key people on the team: “Look, I realize I’ve been hurting the team by taking too long to decide. I’m aware of it and I’m working on it. If you have feedback for me, I’m happy to listen.” Done. Now everyone knows and has been invited to help.

    Alternatively, the boss can talk about issues in more general terms. “As a group I think we need to look at how long it takes us to make decisions. I’m thinking about where the bottlenecks are and I want you to think and talk about it as well.”. Boom. Now the whole org is thinking about the key issue, yet no one has been blamed or tarred and feathered. They may have their suspicions, but they had them before anyway.

  6. Tim Walker

    Meg — To add to what Scott said, which I think is spot-on, there’s also the transparency that’s appropriate between the manager and the person being coached. It’s easy to bail out and say, even when it’s one-on-one in the conference room, “There are some things we need to work on.” It’s much harder to say, “John, I appreciate all you do for the company, but if you don’t learn to control your temper, we can’t use you. Your behavior has to change, starting now. If it doesn’t, you’ll have to go. Let’s figure out how I can help you do this, because I don’t want to lose you.”

    One more thing: the transparency is often tacit. Both for propriety and liability reasons, you can’t say, “Jane was incompetent, so we fired her at the first opportunity.” But you CAN . . . show her the door at the first opportunity. Those who have suffered from her incompetence will understand what happened, without your having to draw them a diagram. And they’ll have reason to BELIEVE that you’re committed to excellence, not just talking about excellence.

    Scott — I absolutely agree that you can’t achieve transparency without genuinely being committed to it on a personal basis. It’s amazing how leaders of strong character — Warren Buffett, say — have no problem admitting their own fallibility. It’s because he *knows* his own fallibility that he’s so prudent in his business dealings. Meanwhile, the connivers and sharpened-elbow types will only ever be able to mouth the words of transparency, because they can’t stand to live it.

  7. Sumeera


    Thanks for putting this in writing. Makes me realize, that I’m not the only one to think this. This is so true and a major reason I was not fulfilled at my job anymore and started my own company. Far too often you see incompetent people get promoted just because they have been at a company for a very long time.

    One of the best posts I’ve read!

  8. Dawn

    The comment “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” is a really great idea. However, how am I to apply that one? Should I just tell my Director that he is also incompetent and should leave? What do you suppose the outcome of that conversation would be?

    The cold hard truth is that if upper management continues to ignore the problem (as is often the case) our only choice as common folk is to pick up the slack and keep quiet.

  9. Jeff

    What’s sad is that this attitude is wildly prevalent in the military. You’d think that, with clear-cut tasks and missions at hand, and a well-defined chain of command, this wouldn’t happen. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The problem is most often found in staff positions. It usually occurs with either O-1s ( first lieutenants ) or O-4s ( majors ). O-1s just became officers and, as such, just graduated. Therefore, they have all of the latest knowledge and know far more than any mere NCO. O-4s are in the middle of the officer structure, and feel that they’ve been left behind. Both groups are highly dangerous and to be avoided at all costs.

  10. A


    I found your post by googling “how to deal with incompetent management”.

    I googled it because as somebody in a senior technical role for several years, I have been running from incompetent management since the start of my career, leaving one job after the next in hopes of finding management that aren’t criminally-stupid, liars, or both.

    So far, no luck. But I’m tired of running, and want to do something about it.

    I like the ideals of your post.

    But I am a lowly line-person with no authority over people, only authority over computers. To echo Dawn’s point: what do you suppose would be the response of me telling my manager, or the executive above them, that they are incompetent? Chances are good I would be fired if I were not so valuable (but even that is no guarantee).

    What do you suggest? As far as I can tell, managers want only one thing from employees: sycophantic yes-man-ism who ask “how high?” when they say “jump”.

    But this desire is as old as humanity. And at least today’s managers don’t murder us non-managers for daring to upset them. Instead, they murder our careers.

    So, what would you suggest to a non-manager like myself? Unionize? I submit to you that that — or stronger government regulation — are the only long-term solutions, because people like me otherwise individually fight the collective of management, and divided, we fail.

    (If you are anti-union — as all managers are and most management thinkers are — then don’t worry, because my profession will never unionize. We are too libertarian for that. So, American worker exploitation in my field can proceed as planned.)


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