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Kenneth W. Keller: Don't sanction incompetence in your business

Inside Business

Posted: May 26, 2009 2:24 p.m.
Updated: May 27, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Tom Hill’s Eaglezine arrives each Friday morning via e-mail. It’s a short, fast-paced, single-page newsletter that always contains at least one nugget of knowledge worth pondering.  

Last week’s issue had an interesting excerpt from a book written by Dave Ramsey, owner of The Lampo Group. Dave writes from personal experience as a CEO about what he calls the five enemies of unity: poor communication; gossip; unresolved disagreements; lack of a shared purpose; and sanctioned incompetence. The company you lead may have none, some or all of these enemies of unity.

The phrase “sanctioned incompetence” literally leapt off my computer screen at me. Over the long Memorial Day weekend, I pondered what I means and how it happens.

It starts when a company hires a person without written criteria for the position.

Often we laugh (or cry) when we deal with other organizations that have hired someone who clearly is not qualified because the only visible requirement was that the person had a heartbeat when they showed up for the interview. Are we guilty of doing this ourselves?

We perpetuate the problem by having the interviewee talk to others in the company without any type of standardized interviewing system to compare the answers given. We fail to perform background and reference checks. We fail to make sure that the interviewee has the competence, knowledge, skills, talents, interpersonal skills and passion to do the job.

The lucky person joins the company. However, once on board, there is no orientation program, no one to explain how things work except his/her immediate supervisor. We assume that the immediate supervisor will guide and mentor the new employee, because we think that is the role and responsibility of the supervisor. The supervisor, however, is already busy doing his/her own work and leaves the new employee to pretty much fend for himself/herself. Does this sound familiar?

The new employee, meanwhile, is excited to be part of something new and is very interested in making a contribution to prove that the decision to add him/her to the payroll is a smart one - a decision that will pay dividends to the company and make the supervisor look good.

However, the supervisor does not have much time to spend with the new hire. A promised job description never materializes. Concrete goals and expected results are never communicated, except in passing; and those are never followed up in writing. Given to the nature of the oral communication, deniability is available for both parties.

When asked to see and organizational chart to see where he/she fits in, the new hire is told that one does not exist, that it isn’t needed.

The new hire is told that anytime a question needs an answer, he/she should speak to his/her immediate supervisor.

Formal performance evaluations are never conducted by the supervisor. The feedback that is provided is vague, communicated only in passing. When the supervisor gets angry or stops talking with his/her direct-report, the new employee learns to recognize that he/she has done something wrong. But what was done wrong, and what should be done differently, is never explained.  

The new hire notices that others in the company don’t show much enthusiasm for their jobs, or for the company. They observe that behaviors that should generate warnings, write-ups and termination go unnoticed and unpunished. Therefore, they are tolerated and acceptable.

What the employee soon learns is that the path of mediocrity will keep his/her paycheck coming. To be bold and aggressive will eclipse his/her immediate supervisor and bring wrath; to do nothing at all risks the loss of the job. So the employee accepts the fact that staying in the sweet spot of safety is the best course.

All of this is part of the culture of the organization, established and perpetuated by the person at the top, who allows and permits sanctioned incompetence to flourish.

Kenneth Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, which brings business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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