5 Ways Companies Breed Incompetence

Incompetence is a national epidemic. Kids leave high school not knowing how to spell, C-level executives think they can supercede macroeconomic laws, government executives practically sell incompetence wholesale.

Fortunately, incompetence has definable roots. Identifying these roots helps companies peg where they are breeding incompetence, then modify their shortcomings to benefit of both managers and employees.

If you’re concerned about incompetence in your company, check out the five tips below to see what might be causing it–and how to deal with it:

1. Using numbers as the only device to measure performance.


My first job out of college was as an inside sales rep. Our 5-person team’s measure of success was our number of sales. However, it took a relatively high number of calls to even begin to land a sale. So our managers gave us performance points for the number of conversations we had. If we had fewer than 14 conversations a day, we were put on probation.

Nobody wanted to go on probation, so a workaround surfaced. On slow days, team members would enter fake conversation notes into the database that managers checked at the end of each business day. These fake notes were usually inconsequential (“Said he wasn’t interested,” etc.), but the point is that people entered a load of crap into the company’s database in order to save their own hides. Those daily quotas encouraged cheating, and harmed the company, too.

Remedy: Measure conversations weekly, taking slow days into account. Rate performance not by number, but by quality of conversations. Train staff in better sales technique and measure performance from there.

2. Spreading workers too thin.


Cost-cutting is an essential component of survival, but it’s also a quick and dirty way to overburden competent employees, thus breeding incompetence. How many times have you heard the story of such-and-such a manager who, when all her other employees were laid off, was forced to run a department all by herself? Companies need to realize that even the most competent employee can’t, by herself, replace an entire team.

Remedy: If staff must be cut, companies need to make a bigger effort to help remaining employees stay competent. Is there room in the budget for contractors? How about telecommuting, which would take some of the travel burden off the employee? New types of collaboration that would spread the job between multiple people?

3. Expecting too much, too soon.


This is an onus both of employers and employees. Both parties expect instant performance; when it doesn’t happen, managers grow disappointed and employees grow disillusioned. I’ve seen many bright-eyed employees enter new jobs with gusto, then fizzle and drag after months of not seeing the results they’d hoped for. Managers who expect employees to know everything from the outset grow impatient when they have to answer too many questions; those who sought miracles from their new employees become wary when progress is slow. It’s the beginning of communication breakdown, which often turns deadly.

Remedy: Unless it’s clear from the outset that the person has to hit the ground running, set scalable performance goals. Print out these goals and have the employee post them on his/her cube wall. Make expectations absolutely clear. Do the same with resources like training managers, helpful websites, etc. If you’re an employee, clearly communicate your limitations at the very beginning. You can do this without making yourself sound incompetent. Promise a company only what you can deliver. Make it clear that you want to grow with the company, not fester inside of it.

4. Putting a bigger premium on politics than performance.


It’s a fact of life that schmoozing often gets you further than quality performance. Unfortunately, some company cultures overemphasize the social aspect, resulting in employees who feel their advancement hinges more profoundly on department happy hours than innovation or quality of service. The result? The aggregate quality of the company suffers, and employees grow overly political or bored.

Remedy: Put a premium on what the employee is doing for the company, not for his/her social network. Don’t mistake personal affinity for organizational benefit. Making performance standards clear from the outset and having an employee report his results on a regular basis are two ways to emphasize accountability.

5. Rewarding mediocrity.


Imagine you’re a gung-ho new hire employee at Franklin Widgets, Inc. You come into the job ready to make an impact–until you notice that everyone spends most of their time staring slack-jawed at Facebook. After you realize you’re safe from managerial scrutiny, you join them. Why should you work hard if nobody else is?

Remedy: The onus is on managers to create a sense of urgency and accountability. Describing how to do this is beyond the scope of this post, but John P. Kotter’s work is an excellent place to start.

Written by Drea Knufken

Currently, I create and execute content- and PR strategies for clients, including thought leadership and messaging. I also ghostwrite and produce press releases, white papers, case studies and other collateral.