(Photo Courtesy of <a href=https://www.flickr.com/photos/jspad/346011683/>Jenny Spadafora via Flickr</a>.)

Dave was a small business owner. His business, like many, had been hit hard by the recession. Doing business the way it had been done before just wasn’t going to work anymore. He needed to change his business model, how he approached his customers, his processes, etc… And with that, his people needed to change. The problem? Dave has had his business for over 30 years and many of his employees have been with him since the beginning. They were like family. No one represented this better than Wanda. She had been an office manager for Dave for the past 20 years and had somehow managed to function without ever learning how to use a computer. She had resisted any form of technology. Unless the whole world loses electrical power (making Wanda a tribal queen overnight), the days of avoiding technology were coming to an end and Dave knew it. Wanda was no longer competent to do her job and her time was running out.

One morning as I visited Dave and we were discussing Wanda, he said to me the following in a smooth southern accent:

“I don’t want to have to take the family cocker spaniel out back and shoot it, but I know that might be what I have to do.”


What is incompetence?

Are you dealing with a direct report that is incompetent? Let me call a “time out” and define “incompetence” as it relates to direct reports. Sometimes incompetence is a temporary condition. The job has changed and for a short time, the person will be incompetent until he or she learns the skills and competencies necessary to be effective. Other times, incompetence is a persistent condition. The person frankly may not have the horsepower to learn what you need him or her to learn and thus, he or she remains incompetent. Sometimes, fear takes over and the individual resists any efforts to get him or her to change. Regardless, the goal for us is to quickly determine what kind of incompetence we are dealing with and attempt to enact the “right” change.

How to make a direct report competent (if you can)

So where do you start? Consider these steps:

1. Be honest with yourself. Yeah, I know how much you just love Amy. She’s just such a nice person. She bakes fantastic homemade snickerdoodles. Oh, and she’s the first to volunteer to dog sit when you go out of town. I get it. But Amy started as a customer service representative and now her job has changed to become a cross between business analyst, programmer and social media guru. Be honest with yourself. Are you asking too much of Amy? Start with the job description and then consider the person. DON’T create the job description to fit the person. I rarely see that play well. When jobs are made to fit the person to force a fit, the individual ends up hobbling along until they eventually leave. And when they leave, you are left holding this funky job that fits no one, but the person who just left.

2. Be honest with them. There is no greater gift than the gift of honesty and directness accompanied with a healthy dose of compassion. Explain to your direct report what you need. Tell him or her that you value them and you want them to be part of your team going forward, but if they can’t make the shift they’ll need to find another home. Be crystal clear in your expectations so it is easy for you to know if progress is being made. For example, don’t say: “I need you to get up to speed on social media.” You’ll end up with a direct report inviting you to their snickerdoodle and dog-themed birthday party via Facebook. Instead, do say: “I need you to be able to monitor customer feedback via social media and post on at least 3 social media outlets daily on our behalf. In addition, I need you to be able to report quarterly on what trends you are seeing and what you recommend that we do as an organization.”

3. Start with something easy. Change is hard, folks. Don’t believe me? Try to change your routine for 21 days and you’ll see what I mean. Not easy. So help the person out by starting with something easy. Find the easiest place to start, give them an easy first assignment and check in weekly. Ex: “The first place I want you to start is by setting up a Twitter account. Next, I want you to begin to follow individuals and organizations that you believe we should be watching. When we meet next week, I want you to fill me in on what you’ve done.”

4. Don’t be afraid to rip off the Band-Aid. I’m a huge believer in giving people a fighting chance to change. I’ve also learned (through many cuts, scrapes and bruises), that most people don’t change. That being said, let them surprise you. Give them a chance. There is nothing more beautiful in life than watching someone overcome their fears and surprise you and themselves. The flip side of that is what most managers do. There is nothing more painful and cruel than to watch someone flail about, unable to change and neither their manager nor they stop it for months bleeding into years. The individual suffers, the manager looks pathetic and for the rest of the group, it’s a morale-killer. Don’t be that person. Rip the Band-Aid off if change isn’t happening.

A final word

This isn’t rocket science. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, there is bad news. In order to do this well, it requires two things in short supply today: clarity and courage. Be clear on what you want so the person has a fighting chance to make the change. You owe it to them. Have the courage to end the experiment quickly if it is causing more pain than progress. You owe that to them as well. Neither will be easy and it will require effort and intentionality on your part.


Just maybe.

This post wasn’t about your direct report at all.