Which is incompetent, the job or the boss?

Posted by jlubans on July 22, 2011

I've been re-reading an item "Why your boss is incompetent" published in the New Scientist a few years back. It's a re-telling of the 1969 Peter Principle, which holds that each of us will eventually rise to our unique level of incompetence. Many of us knows this is anecdotally true, certainly as it may apply to others! Mark Buchanan, the New Scientist writer, reviews some of the subsequent research and offers this:
“The longer a person stays at a particular level in an organisation, the more most measures of their performance fall - including subjective evaluations and the frequency and size of pay rises and bonuses. It is a finding entirely consistent with the idea that people eventually become bogged down by their own incompetence.”

I don’t agree totally with the notion that each of us will become feckless because of an innate failing. Perhaps we underestimate how the stultifying aspects of administrative work can enervate us, can make us appear incompetent. I’d like to suggest that the job itself might be what contributes to the boss’ seeming incompetence. In my own career as an upper administrator of medium sized organizations (usually with a dozen or more direct reports and other duties) I shuffled through and signed off on hundreds of time sheets, hundreds of multi-page performance appraisals, hundreds of budget requests and reimbursements and hundreds of hiring and promotion recommendations.
I (my position) was the required signature before the paperwork could go further. I had become part of the overhead, an extension of the rules and regs.
Much of the time I had little certainty if the documents demanding my signature were true or not. I would ask now and then, but for the most part I worked on trust.
One thing I noticed among some of my peers in other organizations was that they became masters of detail; it was as if signing off on the paperwork was indeed legitimate work – one could hold up paper work and take several days to explore and make sure. Delay seemed to make the information more credible. (I only wanted the stuff off my desk!)
This mastery of detail carried over into my peers planning and agenda setting for their “real work” responsibilities. They seemed to relish making the proverbial mountain out of an administrative molehill.

Besides the mundane duties, there are new relationships when you no longer work side by side with your team. In less complicated days you could lead by being part of the action, now, rather than doing, you find yourself encouraging and persuading sometimes reluctant staff to participate, share, create, and work together. If you are overseeing multiple and diverse units, these may include people who have little interest in helping each other. What really matters is maintaining the status quo and their turf. So, the effort of getting the uncooperative on board uses up energy and, lacking a détente, can result in all too little accomplished.

I also convened hundreds of individual and group meetings. Some of these were interesting and exhilarating – I was engaged and so were the people with whom I was working. Most meetings, especially after the first few years of good progress, were not as satisfying. We ground to a halt, meetings became pro forma. Where did the excitement go? Were we all now putting in our time, watching the clock? Were we meeting mainly for the coffee and donuts?
The smart staff members, with real work to do, endured – they sat silently during the required meetings thinking about their real work and the satisfaction and recognition it provided. That’s part of the incompetence puzzle. When we supervise, we tend to give up much of the work we enjoy doing, the work that has real purpose and value.
Well, how does one cope with this loss of real work? How do we create supervisory level jobs that have more meaning and less enforcement of the policy and procedures manual?
For me, my research and writing (and teaching) became increasingly important as I progressed from department head to assistant director to associate director. And, just as I gained job satisfaction and recognition from writing about my research, societal work also helped me maintain some balance. These external activities helped me be a better manager and leader in my eyes.
Here are some other ideas on how to get around the routine and how to make sure that bright performer, when promoted, continues to sparkle.
- Loosen up the administrative reins; let people have their turn at the paper work, at administrative tasks and at leading necessary meetings
- Give more authority to the person making the recommendation - trust them.
- Eliminate forms that require multiple signatures.
- Include real work in every person’s job description. Second-guessing, reviewing and double-checking are not real work.
- Of course, flatten the organization. The fewer layers, the fewer signatures, the less time, opportunity and inclination for reviewing others’ work,
- Eliminate all non-action agenda items in meetings.
- Managers and staff at all levels reflect regularly on the direction of the organization. Talk about where we are, where we have been and where we need to be. Discuss the future. What can we do better?

So, I think the job can make us look more incompetent than we really are. Not to get too carried away, I know that what I believe is incompetent behavior may be regarded as good stewardship of an organization’s resources, as an essential enforcing the rules and regs so that things do not get out of hand, so that the organization does not flounder.

« Prev itemNext item »


Posted by russ on July 22, 2011  •  18:29:55

"When we supervise, we tend to give up much of the work we enjoy doing, the work that has real purpose and value."

Yea, verily, tis true (in my experience)

Posted by Frank McNutt on July 23, 2011  •  20:20:41

Well, some or actually, most of the stuff you have written above I tend to agree with. Your rules suggest 'pushing down' in the organization and I believe that is a good thing. What that means is what you wrote following suggestion #1. so there.

Leave comment