Do you sanction incompetence? 6 questions that will reveal if you do.

Twenty six! Twenty six employees came…and went.

They didn’t quit. I let them go. Most quietly, some not so. But they left. Eventually and over time I hired, fired, gleaned and screened until I assembled a crew that could think, plan, and work without constant direction from me.

Now, I am not so naïve as to expect that employees can or should be entirely self-directing neither can they or should they function in complete independence. I have written about this here.

Depending on the competence and confidence of an associate in any particular position, the degree of your engagement as a leader/manager will vary. The farther down the scale the more participation will be required from you.

Employees/associates, depending on their experience, education, confidence, and competence will rank somewhere up and down this scale:

Lower level employees typically require more intervention and interaction with their manager. This consumes time and attention which, if too many associates demand it, the overall productivity of the group will suffer.

So, why did I hire and fire 26 people? Because none of that 26 could ever rise to the point where I could confidently let them work with an advanced degree of independence that would permit me to do what I as owner and manager have to do. I was limited in the challenge of doing what I could and should uniquely do as owner and manager because the people who worked for me could not shoulder their responsibilities without significant input from me.

I am consulting for a business now looking for ways to make it more efficient and therefore more profitable. Yesterday I had to fire the manager. After several weeks of intervention on my part he was unable to rise to the level of performance the job requires. Too many facets of the job just fell beyond his grasp. I instructed him to complete a simple task that would prevent internal theft of a certain product. The remedy would take less than ten minutes to complete at the end of the day. Nine days later it still was not being done and the losses continued.

The higher the level of an employee’s responsibility, the greater demands there are upon his line of site. He must be able to see farther and better than those who serve under him. In the circumstance at hand, the manager I recently dismissed consistently failed to grasp both the scope of work required and the detail necessary to manage the business.

Now, all this is predicated upon your ability to understand and define the demands of the job. What’s more, the following 6 tests will reveal if you are sanctioning incompetence.

Question #1 – 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 will be the successful outcome of an employee’s engagement 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, as I explained above, in the capacity to determine what needs to be done and make 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.

Question #2 – How well do you and your clients attack the problems brought to you by your customers? All businesses and non-profits are problem solving entities. We exist to resolve an issue or issues. We fix problems brought to us by our clients. This is easy to see in repair or service companies. It is less obvious in other companies but true nonetheless. In my millwork business, I educated 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 is 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 do not need, and cannot tolerate, excuses. You need results and that is what you pay for.

Queston #3 – 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 are in the wrong position grow more pointed.

Question #4 – 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 because it became very clear that the manufacturing side could not do any better indeed. In a short time the company was out of business. Be frank, be honest, be frankly honest, be brutal 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 very broad highways for incompetence if we let them. If you are required to go back over an associate’s work, to continually monitor their performance, to run them down and demand accountability, there is a problem and if 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.

Question #5 – Do your employees or associates mistake forbearance for indifference? You may be patient, tolerant of error, slow to react, willing to invest time and effort to bring someone along. However, make sure all your associates know that your forbearance should not be taken to signal indifference. If you continually ignore poor performance, missed goals, and failed attempts, if you set a standard but do not enforce it your associates and employees will lose respect for you and exploit what they assess to be weakness. I fired the manager yesterday because I am serious about the standards required by this business and I intend to make certain they are in place.

Question #6 – Do you play fair? Demand the same principled level of performance of everyone. Never let one get away with neglecting what another is required of another. This fosters the concept that a good ole boy system is in place and truthfully, if you do favor one over another, a good ole boy system is indeed in place.

I am sure you have discovered more What principles and practices of building competence have you tried? How well did they work for you?

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