Covering For Incompetence
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"When it comes to working for an incompetent manager, you
basically have three alternatives: fight, quit, or work; all of which are no-win
- Bryce's Law
The pointy haired manager in Scott Adams' "Dilbert" cartoon
has become an icon for management incompetence. Although Adams' character may
seem like an extreme, we have all encountered various examples of the Peter
Principle whereby people have risen above their level of competency. We see this
not only in our companies, but also in the nonprofit organizations we are
involved in. Basically, these are some very nice people who simply haven't a
clue as to what they are doing and stumble through each day making bad decisions
which drives their subordinates to madness.
Before we address what to do with such people let's consider
how they got into a position of power in the first place which, quite simply, is
by error. Perhaps the three most common causes include:
1. Ascends through seniority - this typically happens when
there is nobody else to accept the management position and, as a result,
employees advance by seniority. This doesn't mean they are appropriately trained
or suited for the new position, they are just "next in line." The common excuse
is, "He may not be the most qualified, but he has earned it."
2. Ascends through politics - under this scenario, management
selects a person because of his political maneuvering as opposed to any real
accomplishment; facade as opposed to substance. This type of person knows how to
dress and act the part, but doesn't have a clue as to how to get the job done.
This is an example of the "wrong person at the right time."
3. Ascends through pity - due to personal love and respect, a
person is selected who is perhaps handicapped or aged and, as such, everyone
knows the person has attained the position through pity as opposed to merit.
They also know the person is in over his head even before he starts, thus
everyone recognizes they must bear the additional burden of supporting the boss.
Pity is most definitely not a rational excuse for promoting a person to a
management position and I have personally seen this cause some real problems on
more than one occasion.
Two things may happen as the incompetent person ascends the
throne: they will either decide to take charge of the job themselves (a talent
which they are not particularly well suited for and begins to make mistakes), or
they surround themselves with trusted advisers who do not necessarily offer the
best advice. As a matter of fact, they offer some rather rotten advice and
mislead the manager in order to settle their own political scores. Such advisers
realize the manager is incapable of making a decision or understand what is
going on and, because of this, they seize on the opportunity to promote their
So, what do you do when it is well known that the boss is
incompetent? Unfortunately, there is no pat answer and a lot depends on your
situation, the type of business you are involved with, and the type of person
you are. As I see it, other than foul play you have four options:
1. Overthrow the manager - this requires some good political
skills, at least better than the manager you are trying to topple. But be
careful; if the manager is loved (but not necessarily respected), you will
undoubtedly face resistance from the troops and your political maneuvering may
2. Resign - this is perhaps the easiest option to implement,
but it all depends on what you have invested in the company. If a lot, do not be
too quick to rush out the door. Perhaps it is in your best interest to ride out
the storm and hope better times are ahead.
3. Work harder - it might be better to simply bite your
tongue and pitch in to save the department or business. Inevitably, the manager
will bask in the glow of success while you will undoubtedly go unrecognized or
thanked for your efforts. Nevertheless, you will have a job to come back to
after the manager has moved on.
4. Practice passive resistance - if it is necessary to
highlight the manager's incompetence so that it becomes painfully obvious to
upper management, adopt a position of passive resistance. This means you assume
no initiative whatsoever and go precisely by the book; you do no more or no less
than what is required for your job. Whereas you had previously been willing to
go the extra mile to help the manager, now you are putting forth minimal effort
thereby forcing him to call the shots which he inevitably will get wrong. The
only danger here though is to not cause the department or business to go into a
If the manager has truly risen above his level of competency,
he will inevitably cause the department or business to fail. This can be
prolonged if his staff pitches in and supports him, or will be accelerated if
they back away from him. Therefore, how long you want the incompetent person to
remain in charge is ultimately up to the supporting staff. But be forewarned: if
the manager fails, will the ship sink with him? If so, you will have to support
the manager out of sheer necessity, like it or not.
In some nonprofit organizations, managers are typically
placed in a position of authority for a period of one year. Some say, "Well,
it's only for a year." But a lot can happen in a single year, particularly
if an incompetent manager is left unchecked and wrecks havoc over his area of
Fortunately, in most instances, an incompetent manager is
rarely allowed to remain in power for an extended period of time. Inevitably,
the Peter Principle will kick in thereby forcing upper management to address the
situation and hopefully replace the incompetent person with someone better.
If you would like to discuss this with me in more depth,
please do not hesitate to send me an
Keep the faith.
About the Author
Tim Bryce is a writer and management consultant with
M. Bryce & Associates
of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the field. He is
available for lecturing, training and consulting on an international basis. He
can be reached at
Comments and questions are welcome.
Copyright © 2008 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2008-04-19 16:51:35 in Employee Articles