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Jack Dunigan


Never Sanction Incompetence

Margins of error can become broad highways for failure if we let them

Published: Tuesday, December 22, 2015 - 14:54

Whenever I hire a new employee, as part of his orientation I am always careful to emphasize that it would be wrong to mistake my forbearance for indifference, that while I am long-suffering and will give him time to learn the ropes, there are standards to be reached and maintained.

One of the most ineffective positions leaders take is to sanction incompetence. Now by that I’m not suggesting that there is no room for error, or that no one is ever allowed to make mistakes. When we sanction incompetence, we support or approve of a pattern where incompetence is “manifesting the inability to carry out a task or responsibility.”

How we sanction incompetence

1. When a person’s substandard performance is allowed to continue unchecked. People will make mistakes; sometimes they make lots of them. We sanction incompetence when we do nothing about it.

2. Allowing associates and employees to mistake forbearance for indifference. Again, this calls for a response on our part. To do nothing is to manifest indifference.

3. Failure to confront, or reluctance to confront soon enough. Confrontation is never pleasant, but it’s part of the job. Everything we do messages something. Failure to address incompetence soon enough telegraphs to everyone that standards are negotiable. They aren’t, or at least they shouldn’t be.

4. Blindness to suckups and kissups. This seems to be a particular failing of leaders. And some associates are really good at it. But others can see it even if you can’t, and the result is confusion, resentment, and loss of respect for us as leaders.

5. Allowing personal relationships and feelings to cloud the nature of business. We’re sometimes reluctant to deal with incompetence because the incompetent person is so nice. But we have objectives to reach and standards to maintain.

6. Robbing strength to pay for weakness. This is particularly deadly. Effective delegators never compensate for the failures of one by taking from another.

Delegation is about being able to find others who will extend our reach, multiply our effectiveness, and divide our work. Incompetence compromises all three. Ask yourself these questions to determine if you are sanctioning incompetence:

Have you settled in your thinking and behavior that the demands and criteria you must establish are strictly business? You should possess with some reasonable clarity what the successful outcome of an employee’s engagement will be with your company. It might be easily measured by profit margins. It might be counted by widgets made in a measured amount of time. It might be in the capacity to determine what needs to be done and making sure it is done. A friend once recommended that I hire a friend of his because the man was having a hard time adjusting to adult life and needed a father figure to help him along. My response? My business is not a therapy center, and I am not a therapist. Therapy is costly, too costly for me (or you) to absorb just to “help people along.” You are in business, your organization exists to pursue, and eventually realize, the stated objectives—not provide work therapy for troubled individuals.

How well do you and your associates attack the problems brought to you by your customers? All businesses and nonprofits are problem-solving entities. We exist to resolve an issue or issues. We fix problems brought to us by our clients and customers. This is easy to see in repair or service companies. It’s less obvious in other companies but true nonetheless. In my millwork business, I taught all my employees that we are problem-solving people. A client needs something made or installed to satisfy functional or aesthetic problems, usually both, and it’s up to us to do it. Further, in creating that resolution, your employees will encounter numerous problems to overcome—understanding the intent, engineering a workable design, devising a logical and safe sequence to produce the resolution, finding and sourcing the materials and components necessary to make it happen. You don’t need, and can’t tolerate, excuses. You need results, and that is what you pay for.

Do your employees solve more problems than they create? If an employee or an associate is creating more issues than they solve, the indications that they’re in the wrong position grow more pointed.

Do you underwrite and support work that falls short of the standard? You can excuse incompetence, but you must never sanction it. Never, and I mean never, rob from strength to pay for weakness. One of my more successful failures was a brief venture in a partnership. It was a door and window manufacturing company. My part of the deal was to be the front man. I did the marketing, met with clients, and sold products. Our very first job was for several windows and doors, all of hardwood. I turned the order over to my business partner, whose job it was to oversee the manufacture of the products. In due time the components were delivered to the client, who then called me the next day. He was not happy. I visited the jobsite and discovered why. Honestly, any high school woodshop class could have turned out a better product. I brought back one of the defective windows, set it up on the bench, and gathered the crew.

“This is what we are turning out.” I showed them the window.

They looked it over and, incredibly, said, “What’s wrong with it?”

I then showed them, item by item, the flaws—and there were many.

My business partner then countered, “Well, we can’t do any better.”

“Then,” I argued, “we can’t be in this business.”

Soon thereafter I sold my shares and moved on because it became clear that the manufacturing side indeed could not do any better. In a short time the company was out of business.

Be frank, be honest, and be frankly honest in your assessments of performance. Some people are excruciatingly nice, but they may not be up to the job. The decisions to be made are business ones. We are surrounded by incompetence because we sanction it. Margins of error can become broad highways for incompetence if we let them. If you are required to go back over an associate’s work, to continually monitor her performance, to run her down and demand accountability, there’s a problem and it won’t go away by itself. You might be able to fix it by more training. But if you try that and fail, it’s time to make the hard business decision.

Do your employees or associates mistake forbearance for indifference? You may be patient, tolerant of error, slow to react, and willing to invest time and effort to bring someone along. However, make sure all your associates know that your forbearance should not be taken as a signal of indifference. If you continually ignore poor performance, missed goals, and failed attempts, if you set a standard but don’t enforce it, your associates and employees will lose respect for you and exploit what they assess to be weakness. I fired a manager because I’m serious about the standards required by this business, and I intend to make certain they are in place.

Do you play fair? Demand the same principled level of performance of everyone. Never let one get away with neglecting what is required of another. This fosters the concept that a good-ol’-boy system is in place, and frankly, if you do favor one employee over another, then a good ol’-boy-system is indeed in place.


About The Author

Jack Dunigan’s picture

Jack Dunigan

For more than four decades, Jack Dunigan has been leading, consulting, training, and writing. His experience is varied and comprehensive. His training and consulting clients are as varied as the Chief Justice of the Navajo Supreme Court to a top-rated campsite management company. But his advice is not merely academic. His blog, www.ThePracticalLeader.com, is focused on practical advice for leaders and managers of businesses, corporations, nonprofit agencies, families, organizations, departments, anywhere and anytime a person leads others. His latest book is Three Absolutely Necessary, Always Present Skills of an Effective, Successful Leader (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2012).