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Managing Superiors and Performance

Some responses to last month’s article on managing incompetence led me to continue on the subject with a follow up about the word incompetence itself and how to influence superiors to improve performance.

Incompetence – A Strong Word

One reader commented that the word incompetence is a “turn off” and that competence has multiple dimensions – technical performance, collaboration and communication skills, etc.

Yes, incompetence is a strong word. Labeling a person as incompetent in a session to address their performance and competence level would tend to shut down the communication process and make remediation difficult, if not impossible. When we address issues with the people we are managing we need to be sensitive to their feelings and how words may affect them. In short, starting a performance review with a statement like “Your incompetent” is not recommended! 

However, when addressing competence in an article or in a conversation about managing performance, using words that are direct, strong and meaningful, words like competence and incompetence, can add value. There is too much beating around the bush. While, being kind and considerate, let’s be direct, even at the risk of being politically incorrect.


There are many degrees of competence and many opinions. There is a high degree of subjectivity and need to be sensitive to the needs of each situation.

Objectivity is required. Base performance and competency assessments and discussions on clearly written and mutually understood expectations. 

To say performance is deficient without a comparison of that performance against an established standard is unskillful. Unfortunately, it is not all that common to have clearly defined performance standards. To a degree, we can rely on collective subjectivity – several people agreeing that an individual or group is deficient without a clear, formal standard. But I is dangerous. A group can agree to a level of competence that is too low or too high.

We need to support subjectivity with concrete evidence, even though it may be anecdotal, that performance is deficient. What problems have been caused, what targets have been missed, what expectations not met? If you cannot point to specific instances then there is little hope of addressing the competency issue and improving performance. Recognition of competency shortfalls is a starting point for improvement.

Managing Up

If the need for sensitivity and objectivity is great when working with peers and subordinates, it is even greater when managing the competency of superiors.

Another reader wrote that “I understand the concepts of trying to manage those that are a direct or indirect subordinate. How would you deal with a superior? Are you just out of luck? I know for myself I conduct 360 reviews with my team and I tell them to be brutally honest if there is something I need to work on. I provide my team with a questionnaire based on my Job description and required competencies. I indicate that I know I’m not perfect and I only want to improve as a team leader. If only I can get my superior to do the same.”

Managing less than competent superiors is not easy. Sensitivity, subtlety, objectivity (are they really incompetent or just not living up to your expectations, for example), skill, resolve and courage are all needed. The courage is about taking the risk that you may upset your boss and suffer the consequences. Often direct confrontation is too scary and may be ineffective.

An alternative to direct confrontation as way to manage those above is to shine so brightly as an example that your managers begin to emulate you. Setting an example, particularly when it comes to how to lead and manage requires resolve and patience. The resolve is to keep doing what you know is right even though you are not getting support or recognition from above and possibly even resistance from your peers and subordinates. The patience is about being able to wait for results without requiring them. Do what you do and let the results emerge. Be objective. Are the results positive? Are they meaningful?

This approach does not directly address the problem of a weak superior but it does help to minimize the impact of suboptimal management performance. You are not pushing down the negativity, you are doing your best to create some resistance and create change within your scope of control and influence.

Often this is a long shot. If you make no headway and run out of patience, fire your boss! That means finding a new position and leaving. If that is not a practical possibility it comes down to making the best of it. Accept what you cannot change, change what you can and be wise enough to know the difference. 

On the macro level – It’s All About Performance

Competency is a critical aspect of performance management and performance management is a complex process. Success in addressing competency and performance issues depends greatly on the attitude of the people involved and the organization’s level of maturity.

In addition to setting a positive example, you can begin to discuss management practices and the importance of performance assessment and continuous improvement with the goal to open the organization to a learning dialogue. A learning dialogue means communicating about improving performance by improving processes. In this dialogue the performance of individual players is not assessed and discussed. Instead the discussion is focused on goals, benefits, best practices and barriers. 

In the absence of a culture of process awareness and assessment, what Peter Senge refers to as a learning organization, it is up to individuals to take the leap into the uncharted space of facilitating critical analysis of performance. Varying degrees of formality are possible. At the onset it may be very informal. Discussions arise out of specific incidents or interesting articles or comments. Individuals make a commitment to make the shift from complaining to the more productive direction of cause analysis and problem solving. Often the dialogue begins without the performance challenged person or people involved. Ultimately they must be drawn in to create change.

As a core group begins to recognize the benefits of and possibilities for improvement they enlist others. Once there is a sufficient argument, recommend greater formalization of process improvement/competency improvement to senior management. This may require a business case at some point but can begin with a good oral argument to a friendly and receptive leader. In effect, the dialogue plants the seeds of process awareness and that leads to learning and improvement. 

Again, patience comes into play. Dialogue is about the exchange of ideas without attachment to changing anyone or anything. Let go of judgment and disappointment. Once the seeds begin to take root and the ideas spread and are more widely accepted there is the need to shift from dialogue to planning and action. Action is most likely to be effective if it comes from above and is institutionalized. It is a long haul.

When patience runs out or when it is clear that the long haul is measured in life times rather than years – move along. Fire your boss. Until then, stay positive, do what you can in your scope of control to be part of the solution.

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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