top of page

Functional Incompetence

You have no doubt encountered the term functional alcoholic. These are persons who seem to be functioning because they appear to be responsible and productive despite their condition. Functional alcoholics rarely miss work because of their condition, and even though some of them may excel at their jobs, persons who report to them are aware of the open secret. Similarly, functional incompetents attempt to give the impression of being on top of things, being in control. Their bosses are blissfully unaware of their incompetence because of their powerful self-promotion skills. However, their direct reports are painfully aware they are being used and undermined. Trisch is a manager who used her influence to gain a promotion. She is a master story teller always positioning herself as a victim, having to overcome insurmountable odds so she can lower her executives’ expectations of her. Playing on their sympathy causes them to overlook superficial explanations and bold alternative facts. Like the Pied Piper, Trisch has lulled members of the executive team into thinking she is a top performer. She reinforces her “all-star” status by always saying something negative about members of her team. Artfully planting seeds of doubt, creating a negative perception about her direct reports among members of the executives, skillfully keeping everyone at arms-length. Never allowing an opportunity for the myths she created to be dispelled. Trisch’s deep, dark secret is that she is a functional incompetent, creating the false impression that she is at the top of her game but she is not even close. In fact, she is profoundly incompetent, positioning work produced by members of her team as her own, never acknowledging their talent or contribution. Trisch is unaware that her direct reports are onto her games. They keep silent because they prefer not to face a vindictive onslaught. Trisch’s direct reports know she is an insidious manipulator, using excuses and victim language to cause executives to not only buy into her, they valiantly defend her. Members of Trisch’s team perceive themselves as stuck, having only two choices, to put up with the treachery and eventually become physically ill or resign with, or without a job offer. As they deliberate their options, Trisch reinforces the divide between members of her team and the executives by minimizing their access. Trisch is disorganized, always working on important deliverables at the last minute. She rarely has an original idea and she tends to socialize all day, gathering negative intel about anyone who matters so she keep it as an Ace up her sleeve, waiting to play her best cards when the time is right. Trisch works late almost daily, maintaining the pretense that she is overworked. In reality, she is socializing all day and gossiping profusely so her work day starts at 5:00 pm. This is precisely when she lets her executive “surrogates” know she is slaving away, conscientiously doing her work. Trisch keeps the team in a state of perpetual terror by throwing tantrums, ranting for long periods of time, and over dramatizing petty situations, making sure no-one steps out of line. Trisch does whatever it takes to control the people who report to her, minimizing the likelihood they will report her by turning on the charm and always letting her team members know, “You can come to me.” Her intent is not to support, it is to keep her finger on the pulse of just about everything so she will know when to preempt an attack. Trisch is the source of all bottlenecks, causing her direct reports and employees from other departments to wait interminably for her responses. This is one reason for her slid reputation for being incompetent among non-executives. She is also well known for compromising her integrity even though she insists her integrity is intact. She fails to realize, persons who operate in integrity don’t have to say it. People watch what they do and they know. Trisch hoards information her direct reports need. Interestingly enough, she is also a person who doesn’t like to attend meetings. Even though it sounds contradictory, it is not. The problem is that she cannot contribute anything substantive because she can’t explain her position without a rehearsal. As a result, she is uncomfortable being asked to contribute in meetings because she always has to maintain her appearance of flawlessness. Unfortunately, when Trisch doesn’t attend meetings, she lacks the information she needs to make critical decisions so the bottlenecks persist until an executive inquires. As an executive, it is important to develop the skills you need to discern when you are being duped. You should be attuned to the signs of this type of bullying behavior because these functional incompetents create a situation where their direct reports perceive they have no recourse. The trouble is that confrontation is not the answer. Storytelling is their forte so they will weave a web of denial, half-truths, inaccuracies, and personal attacks about their coworkers to solidify their position as the apparent “Alpha”. Their game is power and people like Trisch play to ensure they are always the winners. In circumstances like this, it is important for executives to take rehabilitative action because not only is the incompetent manager not trusted, perhaps even despised, the executives facilitating Trisch’s bad habits are also not trusted: - For being out of touch with staff and therefore oblivious to this destructive behavioral system and its effects; - For not being open to feedback in relation to the favored manager. - For only caring about their own work, allowing themselves to remain oblivious to bottlenecks that block flow within the layers of their departments or teams. Persons who report to functional incompetents feel like they are powerless to take action. To avert this destructive dynamic, decision makers need to put systems in place to better understand the interpersonal dynamics on their teams. Here are a few steps you can take: - Give your team access to you if they need it. Don’t only depend on the formal escalation process. It may be too late. - Listen - not only to the most charismatic person planting the seeds of doubt about your team members, but to everyone. - Invite your indirect reports to provide you with presentations or reports so you can learn about their strengths and weaknesses first-hand. This is because you should avoid getting to know persons through the eyes of someone else, get to know them for yourselves. - Randomly check the statistics for yourself and the sources of those metrics if you suspect there is a need. Otherwise, you may be guilty of validating alternative facts and risking your own reputation. If the incompetent manager is unable to change her behavior, decision-makers need to weigh the costs and benefits of leaving the manager in place and make an informed decision. There is another type of functional incompetent who is exceedingly, nice, going overboard to treat the persons who do their work well. They are less likely to “throw persons under the bus” but they are also highly manipulative because they cannot afford for the person doing their work to become disgruntled and leave the team. Yvette Bethel is CEO of Organizational Soul, an Organizational Effectiveness Consulting and Leadership Development company. She is a Consultant, Trainer, Speaker, Facilitator, Executive Coach, Author, and Emotional Intelligence Practitioner. If you are interested Yvette's ideas on other leadership topics you can sign up for her newsletter at www.yvettebethel.com or you can listen to her podcast at Evolve Podcast.




1 view0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page