When Staff Carry Their Manager

OK, ready for something really difficult? ………one of the Big Ones? When you find staff have been carrying (and covering for) their manager for a considerable period of time. When you realise the staff are clearly more competent than their manager. When you recognise the staff cannot or will not carry the load for a minute longer.

It is likely that by the time the issue comes to your attention, the core problem and its symptoms have been developing, unchecked, for some time.

We’re not talking here about a one-off, time-limited situation, when for various reasons a manager may struggle to function in his/her role. We’re referring here to an ongoing situation, where poor performance is the norm. Staff carrying or covering for an incompetent manager eventually get to a point when they’ve had enough. What may have started legitimately enough as a ‘we’ll cover for a while because………’ will change eventually. Tolerance will go, replaced by a loss of job satisfaction, reduced personal performance and a lack of commitment to their role and the organisation. It is about this point that experienced staff may decide to leave.

What will you hear and see from staff? Expressed concerns about their manager’s ability to do his/her job. Specific comments that may be negative, critical or scornful. Frustration and anger about the manager’s boss, CEO, Trustees, whoever, for not knowing what’s going on; for allowing the situation to develop and continue, if the incompetency is already known . Annoyance, anger or resentment that the manager is paid to underperform (rewards for poor performance). Might see demotivated staff and hints of them leaving early, arriving late and long lunches (well, why not? – the managers doing the same).

Incompetent managers can mask their inadequacies well. They say the right things. They look and act as if they are very, very, busy. In reality, they achieve little. They may eventually get things done after an inordinate amount of time, reminders and prodding.

Requests made of them may go unheeded (well, I’m just SO busy). Their desks can be filled to overflowing and look like critical work is on the go. Sometimes, information cannot be found, because they have their own systems (different to the rest of the organisation) or, a complete lack of systems or procedures. They may have a ‘too hard basket’ of gargantuan proportions, but never admit to having one (no, no, I’m up to date….just don’t open that bottom drawer). They may inappropriately and informally delegate aspects of their role to staff (as long as it gets done, it doesn’t matter who does it, right?); they may spend all of their time talking about what needs to be done, and no time doing any of it. Increased sick leave is not uncommon (especially when their immediate manager is away) nor are late starts, early finishes, long lunches and other unexplained absences throughout the day. You’ve got the idea.

Be mindful there may be a huge personal cost for the person drowning in their role. It requires lots of energy to create smokescreens, maintain subterfuge, deflect criticisms, defer enquiries and juggle the status quo, let alone the energy required to do some work. Sometimes, when incompetent staff are found out and taken out of the situation, they can feel enormous relief. Conversely, there can also be personal gains for the incompetent individuals in the way they work. All the angst, smokescreening and other strategies used can be a source of negative energy and buzz and fuels them to keep on, keeping on.

And how could all this possibly happen, I hear you ask? A lack of good systems, management ‘tools’ and effective monitoring are often the culprits.

It is important organisations have a path to follow – through strategic and tactical plans. That the implementation of those plans are formally delegated to management and other key roles. That the key tasks, key performance indicators, timeframes for completion and resource requirements, are well documented and clearly understood by all concerned. That individuals’ performances are regularly monitored, using formal monitoring systems. That good performance is recognised and rewarded. That poor performance is recognised and systems put in place to rectify the situation, the moment problems first appear.

Monitoring cannot be left to chance. It is the responsibility of the CEO, Trustees, business owners, whoever, to ensure every aspect of their business is on track and that everyone is pulling their weight.

And you, the staff carrying an incompetent manager? Take your concerns to the next level in the organisation. Ask that the situation be investigated. Record future incidences causing concern. Shed the extra load – don’t cover for or carry the manager any longer, as to do so, masks the real problem.

And you, the struggling manager? If you are self aware and know the situation you are in, get help. Talk to your boss. Find a coach. Ask for direct feedback on your performance from your staff and your boss. Then do something about what you hear. If you are not self aware………….well, one day you may get a real surprise.

And you, the person into whose lap this has fallen? Take it seriously. Investigate the situation. If you haven’t got appropriate, formal systems and procedures in place, then put them in. Work the situation through to a satisfactory conclusion – it is, after all, an organisational problem. But do something – your credibility and professionalism is on the line here too. To do nothing will result in losing good, experienced staff you probably can’t afford to lose, and ‘the problem’ will remain.

First Published in NZ Business January 2000

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