Archive for May, 2015


Working Around Incompetence on the Team

Monday, May 11th, 2015

We aspire to build staff teams of competent, motivated individuals who work in dogged pursuit of a clearly articulated vision. What most of us have are teams with some outstanding staff and some not so outstanding staff, working side by side towards a vision that seems clear, on some days.

Most of you are grappling with some incompetence on the team you inherited, or incompetence you managed to hire yourself.  You spend your time accordingly.  Sometimes, it is abundantly clear that a member of the team just isn’t able or willing to adequately fill the needs of the role, but the political dynamics of the situation don’t allow for making a transition now.  How do you manage in this environment?

Maintain Clarity of Expectations: Effective performance management of the team requires clarity in three areas, for each staff role: the essential functions (duties & tasks of the job), the core competencies (behavioral attributes, skills & abilities required), and the performance goals (area of focus for the current year).

Oftentimes, as a supervisor comes to terms with the incompetence of a team member, the supervisor abandons performance expectations, settling for whatever the employee delivers.  The supervisor grows weary of communicating failed expectations over and over. So, he scales back the expectations. Each time that expectations are lowered, the underperforming staff member reduces effort and performance degenerates even further.

Working with incompetence on the staff requires vigilance around role expectations. If we cut the underperformer slack, we teach the larger staff system that excellence is not important. We set up an unhealthy dynamic where high-functioning staff burn out as they over-compensate for the underperformer. We lose sight of effective staffing structures because we keep re-assigning responsibilities to newer hires that are brought in to pick up the slack.

Maintaining clarity of expectations requires a commitment to ongoing communication about what the role requires, and communication about the gap we observe between actual performance and the ideal. Maintaining clarity of expectations means that the under-performing team member bears the discomfort of their own under-performance. We don’t create a comfortable environment for them to settle into by displacing responsibility elsewhere.

Be Honest with Yourself: It is easy to tell yourself that it isn’t in the best interest of the congregation to move the incompetent member off of the team right now.  You imagine the level of conflict that such a move might produce. You exaggerate the level of social support that the person has in your congregation.  You empathize with the drama the employee is experiencing in his personal life. You nurture all of your worst fears about how badly this could unfold. You tell yourself that people of faith are invested in redemption and that you are giving this person one more chance.

If you are honest about the situation, you may have to acknowledge your own conflict avoidance.  You may have to admit that you haven’t moved on the situation because you simply haven’t engaged the hard work of expectation setting, and you haven’t invested the necessary time in performance feedback. You may have to admit that this season isn’t any better or worse than a future time for addressing the problem; in fact, to allow the situation to continue will only make things worse over the long term.

Have a Long-Term Plan: Now may not be the right time to move the under-performer off of the team. What conditions would be evident if it was the right time?  How can you create those conditions?

Recently I spoke with a pastor who vowed to me that she would not pass her incompetent employee onto the next senior pastor. So I asked the pastor, “If you are ultimately going to deal with this, why not now, so that you can enjoy the benefit of the improved environment, along with the next senior pastor?”  She didn’t have a response.

If we decide to live with continued incompetence, we should have a clear picture of the conditions we are trying to produce that will ultimately birth a healthier team. For example, a pastor decides that she needs eighteen months to bring a new staff member fully onboard, so that the new leader can step into the gap as we let the problem staff member go.  Or, a pastor targets a six-month period of time to help lay leadership become more aware of the performance gap, and to build a cadre of lay leadership supporters before moving the incompetent team member out. The pastor should have a specific action plan in mind to justify inaction now.

Having a long-term plan also means creating a five year staffing plan, so that each time you make a staffing change you work towards a long-term solution that resembles your dream team.  Don’t structure around incompetence.  In other words, don’t create new positions to shore up an under-performer. When you eventually move an under-performer off of your team, you don’t want to be saddled with a patchwork of positions that no longer make sense.  Design roles and hire new people only because they move you towards your long term vision of team health.

You may not have the staff team of your dreams, but there are concrete steps that you can take to eventually live into that dream.  It requires persistence and hard work. You can move in the right direction by maintaining clear expectations, being honest with yourself, and having a long term plan.