How Leaders Handle Incompetent Employees
Do you feel disappointed and disrespected by your team members? Here’s how to handle incompetent employees.
“There’s someone out there that bugs you. We all have that. The question is, how do we manage that?”
-Kim Ades on incompetent employees
Here’s the scenario. You’re taking the day off work to accompany your son on his field trip. Before you left work, you told your team not to contact you unless there’s an emergency. In the middle of the day, your assistant emails you with a slew of unimportant questions that could have waited until tomorrow. Why do you have such incompetent employees?!
Listen as Kim Ades, President and Founder of Frame of Mind Coaching™, and podcast producer David Wolf discuss how to handle incompetent employees.
Leadership and Incompetent Employees
Kim: I have chosen a journal written by a business owner who decided to take a day off. He came back and shared a part of that experience, so here’s how it goes:
“I feel aggravated and annoyed. I took the day off to go on a field trip with my son and even though I told my staff that I would be away and to only email me if there was an emergency, I got an email from my assistant asking me to answer a whole bunch of questions that she could’ve handled easily on her own. They were not urgent by any stretch. She’s not an independent thinker and she needs to be spoon-fed with everything. I think she just isn’t all that intelligent. She’s only capable of so much. Unfortunately, she has a sweet personality and everyone in the office really likes her.”
As you’re listening to this particular journal, what hits you?
David: First of all, being aggravated as a reaction to this situation is totally a choice on the part of this entrepreneur. There’s a point where he made a decision about staffing and there’s a level of acceptance that I think needs to be looked at and what role he played in choosing this person to be a part of their team. So there’s a choice that he made and there’s some acceptance there.
The other thing that struck me was that he’s conscious of how well people like her in the office, and so to me, there’s an opportunity here to unpack that and compartmentalize those ideas. I don’t know if that’s the way you would approach it, but please, go ahead.
Monitoring Your Mood as a Leader
Kim: You’re on the money with a lot of the things that you mentioned. The first thing is the fact that he’s aggravated and annoyed. Very often, we get annoyed with the actions or lack of actions of other people. He took the day off, he went on a field trip with his son and he received an email. The fact that he received an email from this particular person really triggered him. It caused him frustration to the point of aggravation and annoyance.
I don’t know about you, but I get emails all day long, sometimes from local retail stores, sometimes from Amazon, from different places. They send me emails all day and I don’t get aggravated with those. I just delete them or I unsubscribe or I move them to a file that I can look at later, but they don’t aggravate me. I’m going to assume that he gets all kinds of emails all day too, but this email aggravated him. And so when we look a little bit more closely at what this is really about, it’s about the fact that he expressly communicated the fact that he wasn’t going to be available and to only reach out to him for emergencies.
“Nothing that anybody else does is actually what’s annoying you. What’s annoying you are the thoughts, the beliefs and the conversations inside your head about what they’re doing.” -Kim Ades
Now, there are all kinds of layers here. For me, the first layer is, why did he get so annoyed? He didn’t have to look at his phone. He didn’t have to read the email. He was on a field trip with his son, and it’s interesting to me that he got so easily distracted. So that’s the first thing I want to look at, is why can’t we just put our phone away while we’re focused on our kids?
The second part of it is, she sent an email. Who said it needed to be addressed immediately? He decided that it needed to be addressed immediately. And so just because she sent him an email, doesn’t mean she said, “This is urgent, please answer right away!” She just did her work and sent him an email that he could’ve easily looked at later on in the day or even the next day, but he felt it was offensive that she actually sent him this email, so he’s interpreting her actions as a lack of respect.
Not Hiring Incompetent Employees
David: It also sounds like there’s some history with her in his perception of her intelligence and her ability to function for him in the ways that he needs, so maybe disappointment mixed in with that, but sort of a history of displeasure with incompetent employees. Do you hear that?
Kim: Yes, absolutely, you’re right about that. The question is, why did you hire her? Why do you keep her there? Why has she been here for so long if you’ve seen repetitive instances of unintelligent behavior? And how did you choose her? What kind of screening process did you have in place to avoid hiring incompetent employees? What were the things you were looking for? Why did this go unnoticed? Because if someone is not intelligent, you can pick that up through your screening process, but he did not.
And if we go one step further, did he train her? Are there things she should know that she doesn’t, but that’s just due to lack of training? We want to explore that as well. And then the last piece is this one sentence: “Unfortunately, she has a sweet personality and everyone in the office likes her.” What I want to ask is, what makes that unfortunate? Just because everybody likes her doesn’t mean she’s necessarily the right fit.
So I want to really explore the fact that he feels that he needs to get approval and that there may be a fear of backlash if he takes corrective action to replace her. There is all kinds of stuff going on that points to the way he leads.
David: Yes, and all the choices he makes as a leader and choosing to be a victim rather than a leader, right?
Kim: Right. When you normally think about coaching, you think about helping people take proactive action, but I don’t want to do that yet. I don’t want him to fire her and hire more incompetent employees. I want to really explore the fear he has around letting her know that she’s not doing the right thing. I want to explore the idea that he’s frustrated and kind of angry inside, but probably just holds it in rather than sharing it with her. And I want to explore why he feels discomfort about letting her go if she’s not the right fit.
I want to look at how he thinks about this before addressing any action he takes. In fact, whatever action he takes doesn’t really matter to me. What matters to me is the fact that he’s annoyed over something that, to me, isn’t annoy-worthy.
Managing Yourself and Your Team
David: The other thing that strikes me as an entrepreneur listening to all this is that he could create a framework for his leadership and even his organization. He could have a set of values that he could fall back on and say, “I’m annoyed by these behaviors, but I have a set of principles that I lead by that help guide me when I’m triggered.” Is that something that you would explore within the context of coaching?
Kim: We would absolutely look at a person’s values and it’s really a matter of when that takes place in the coaching cycle. What we’re looking at first when we coach people is, what are the things that trigger you? What are the things that get you aggravated, annoyed, riled up? Are they annoy-worthy? If we look a little bit deeper, what are your thoughts and beliefs around these issues?
In his case, he believes that, “I told her not to reach out to me unless it was an emergency and she specifically defied my instructions,” so there’s a respect conversation that’s going on in his brain that says, “She’s not respecting me. She’s not respecting what I specifically asked her not to do.” For him, that screams to him and that’s why he’s offended. That’s why his back is so up. And so we want to help him understand that she’s just doing her job and that the conversation that he’s having in his brain about incompetent employees is what’s causing him to be annoyed, upset, frustrated.
For everybody who’s listening, there’s someone out there that bugs you. We all have that. The question is, how do we manage that? The first part of it is to learn the principles of thought management and understand that nothing that anybody else does is actually what’s annoying you. What’s annoying you are the thoughts, the beliefs and the conversations you have inside your head about what they’re doing, what it represents and what it means.
David: I love that concept of owning your own thoughts and the principles of thought management, and this is at the core of the work you do with Frame of Mind Coaching™ as well. That’s totally essential. I’m going to bet that this individual experiences this as a repeating thought pattern, which is a lot of what you look for in the journals, right?
Kim: That’s exactly right. It is a repetitive pattern with different people and different instances. What’s repetitive in this case is the fact that it’s something that goes on in his brain, but that never gets addressed.
David: Yeah. It also strikes me that you can peel this back layer by layer. So as a coach, how deep do you go? When does it change? When do you see transformation? Is this revealed through the journaling itself? How do you look for that transformation?
Kim: That’s a great question. For me, what we’re looking at is the level of aggravation and annoyance. Does that go down over time when the same incidents take place? How does a person handle it? How do they interpret what’s happening? How do they interact with that?
In this case, there is no interaction, there’s just internal strife. So what we want to do is see if the same thing happens over time. Look, he can’t control what other people are doing. Nobody can. We can control the way we respond to what other people are doing. So we’re looking for his response to change.
You’re on a field trip with your son. Have a good time. What other people are doing has no relevance to your good time. You’re using that as your reason to be upset and annoyed and that’s a pretty bad reason to be upset and annoyed. If we continue on that journey, the second part will be when you have specific expectations and you want people to do certain things, how do you communicate that? And when they don’t follow through with those expectations, how do you communicate that?
“Give specific instructions so that they know what to do rather than just identifying what not to do.” -Kim Ades
Very often, we tell people what they’ve done wrong instead of telling them what we’d rather them do. Saying, “I was on this field trip with my son and I didn’t want you to send me an email. I specifically told you only to reach out to me when there was an emergency and this was clearly not an emergency,” is just identifying all the things that this particular employee is doing wrong.
Rather than doing that, I’d like to see leaders say what they want, like “When there’s something going on, hold it in your inbox and send it to me the next day.” Give specific instructions so that they know what to do rather than just identifying what not to do. This idea of turning towards what you want is very challenging for a lot of people because what’s in front of them is so alive and interactive and hard to manage that it’s hard for them to turn towards what they want instead of just getting mad at what they see.
David: What a beautiful question to ask internally or in an organization. Just ask for what you want or ask yourself, “Why am I not asking for what I want?”