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Managing Incompetence

Incompetence is a strong word.  It means the inability to perform; a lack of competence. 

There are degrees of competence – master, expert, competent, marginally competent, marginally incompetent, incompetent, disruptively incompetent, … . 

Competence goes beyond the relatively easy to measure performance of concrete skills to include behavioral /relationship competencies, emotional intelligence, thinking skills, mindfulness, concentration and self awareness.

Someone who is highly skilled and able to perform competently when working on his or her own can be incompetent when working in a team.  A person’s level of competence is influenced by a complex of communication, collaboration, conflict management, emotional intelligence, and concrete skills.

Another person may be less than competent in applying concrete skills, for example a programmer who can’t program very well or an analyst that gets the numbers wrong, a teacher that doesn’t teach well.   But that person may be competent in the sense that he/she communicates and collaborates well and is open to learning to acquire or improve skills, and , in the extreme be ready to acknowledge the need for moving on.  Others are incompetent across the board, with neither concrete nor behavioral and awareness competencies.

How often are your projects and operations burdened with less than competent players who may be on management, technical performance, administrative or executive levels?

The Impact on the Team

A less than competent player on the team places a burden on the other team members and jeopardizes the team’s success.  The work needs to get done and done well.  That often means that the more competent players must take on work they may not have had to take on had the full team been highly competent.  This may lead to dissatisfaction among the team members, particularly the higher performing ones.  It may lead to cost and schedule impact as errors and omissions occur, rework is required and performers are over worked.  When competency shortfalls are in the behavioral realm, emotion based interpersonal conflict and misunderstandings sap team energy.

In some cases incompetent players in influential positions can be the cause of poor decisions which lead the team into in misguided directions.

Take for example a person assigned to a team responsible for selecting a vendor for a large complex program.  The person failed to read and/or understand the Request for Proposal and the project charter which clearly (for the other members of the seven person team) stated the nature of the program and the role the procurement would take.  The person, instead of asking questions during briefings and Q&A sessions, he began to raise issues with senior managers on the program’s steering committee, making statements that were inaccurate, based on a serious misunderstanding of the program.  This led to a flurry of activity to dispel the misconceptions.  The positive result was to have an opportunity to inform people and clarify understandings.  

Depending on the individuals and their process, the person, continuing on as a member of the team might harbor resentment because he felt that he was made to look foolish for having missed the point of his assignment.  The other members of the team might lose respect for the person but have to continue to work with him and his slowness to understand and unwillingness to acknowledge his need to ask questions, listen to the answers and do the required reading.


When we analyze this incident, we can find a generic cause that underlies many such incidents.  The person’s performance capabilities and shortcomings in this case were known, yet no-one, neither his superiors, nor peers, no-less his subordinates, had ever confronted the issue.  The organization’s weak performance management process and a culture that accepts marginal if not incompetent performers as a norm contributed to the problem.

While failings in the hiring process contribute to the presence of incompetent performers, the lack of an effective accountability based performance management process is the root cause of having incompetent performers on teams. 

In some fields there are structured evaluation or assessment programs to track the competency of individual practitioners, but even in those fields incompetent performers slip through.  Often, there are little or no defined objective criteria and many of the criteria are in the interpersonal/behavioral realm and are hard to quantify.

Competency assessment and competency improvement through training, coaching, mentoring and on the job performance reviews are means for managing competency and ensuring that an organization’s staff is made up of competent players and that incompetent players are identified, remediated and, if necessary, eliminated.

Managing the Work at Hand

But, these are long term solutions that do not help an individual project manager (PM) who is faced with an incompetent team member.  What options does the PM have?

He/she can confront the issue directly by creating a clear case with objective proof of incompetence and bring it to his superiors for action.  This, in a healthy environment, seems the best course of action.  It would ideally lead to a replacement or at least some leeway regarding meeting tight deadlines and budgets.  It would lead to remedial action to train, retrain or eliminate the poor performer.

What if the culture or the PM’s manager does not support such a direct approach?  What if the manager says something like “He’s been around for years and no one else complained, just make due and don’t bother me with this.”?   Or, “He’s the boss’ brother in-law and he’s not going away?” What if the incompetent person is an employee of the client firm for which the PM is working as a consultant and there is no mechanism for performance review?

In one case a person in a technical position was not able to perform his work competently.  There were errors, delays and poor quality results.  There was no time or budget for training and the performer’s manager did not acknowledge the shortcomings. The project was being managed by consultants and the marginal performer worked for the client.   The approach was to assign the person to tasks that were administrative, short, and non-critical, and to closely supervise the performer or team them with a peer who would make sure quality was acceptable. If the performer’s work was so poor that it had to be redone, it was given it to someone else and the complexity of tasks assigned was reduced.

We found a right balance and made the best of it. 

It seems that finding the right balance and making the best of any situation is key to managing anything.  With competency issues, it is important to objectively assess the situation, putting aside “should be” thinking.  Focus on the situation and what you can do about it.

What is happening? How is it effecting the project?  What are the time and cost constraints and risks? How has this issue normally been handled?  What is the environment like? How aware and mindful are the players?  How emotionally intelligent?

What are the options for remediation, elimination, and managing current work and its effective performance?

With answers to these questions you can craft a practical solution while considering the personal feelings of all parties.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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