Healthy Leaders


The Challenge of Incompetence

Jess MacCallumJess MacCallum

What do you do when one of your key people keeps letting you down ‒ but it’s not like he isn’t working hard, or that he’s not a super guy, or that his attitude is bad?

If you remain in a leadership position long enough you will have to deal with incompetence in someone at some point. It must be addressed for the health of the organization. Whether that means reassigning someone, redefining their role, or letting them go, as a leader the only option not available is to allow the mission of the organization to suffer.

First, it pays to review how “Joe” got into a key role in the first place. Was it through seniority? Was he qualified at one time but is failing lately? Was he the only one available when the need arose? Identifying how he got into his current position will significantly impact how you handle the situation. For example, if your organization uses a seniority system, there may be little you can do about removing him, but you may be able to redefine his role; if Joe took on the role because he was the only one available (small organizations typically have too few people and too many hats) he may be relieved to give it up. Maybe he earned the job in the past but has failed to keep up with its changing requirements today.

Second, is Joe aware of his shortcomings? If he wants to do better and has expressed that, then it may not be incompetence but a lack of training or resources. If he can’t see that he is failing to perform, he needs to know. And it should be framed in terms of the impact to the organization ‒ that will give you and Joe both a framework as you try to resolve the issue.

Third, how much communication has Joe had about your expectations of him? Does he have a written job description of his current role? (Sometimes what looks like incompetence in a role is merely the lack of commonly understood, written expectations.) Do you provide him with specific points where he can improve? Does he have the freedom to bring performance concerns directly to you? Have you ever asked Joe whether he thinks he might fit better in another role?

Finally, as a leader you will have to set some kind of timeframe for Joe to improve as a means of protecting the organization. You may want to share it with Joe or not, but incompetence in a key role cannot be allowed to continue. Good leaders work to develop their people, but they are also responsible to the mission of the organization. And that may mean dealing with incompetence by letting someone go.

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