Executive Incompetence & Immaturity
- turning around a failing organisation
‘Most people don't grow up. Most people age.
They find parking spaces, honor their credit
cards, get married, have children, and call
that maturity. What that is, is aging’.
TWELVE months after being promoted the usually buoyant Managing Director was confronted by falling profits, internal conflict, rising staff turnover and confusion … “I can’t understand why!” he protested, he had hoped that by now his time at the helm would have produced the rewards he had worked so hard to achieve!
“I inherited what I thought was a pretty good team, hired a couple of go-getters recommended by people I trusted and promoted a couple of rising stars. But, as months went by, the results achieved by these so-called high achievers has grown worse, not better. They blame the market and the economy… they say my expectations are unrealistically high! They seem like a team of bright, well credentialed, intelligent, experienced and loyal people - but they really worry me! Something, somewhere, is wrong - I feel it, but I can't touch it! There has to be something here that I'm not seeing?”
Indeed there was! And how many times have we heard similar frustrations being expressed. Crucial to understanding the problem confronting the CEO is that rarely is the whole picture visible - parts of the puzzle remain hidden. Because the key to understanding executive incompetence is to understand the cause is emotional. It is not attributable to lack of training, past experience or insufficient knowledge. To the contrary, it is very often the more experienced and most knowledgeable executives who are in over their heart, not their head.
What the CEO sees – what is visible to him – is technical competence, intellect and experience. Only partly revealed – and largely not visible – is the extent to which a range of unconscious behaviours and emotions affect and influence the outcomes he anticipates. Moreover, any such feedback as he might glean is inevitably filtered through anxious-to-please subordinates and may be of no help at all.
Spotting executive incompetence?
EXECUTIVE incompetence is evident in many ways. The most obvious being the inability to get results, without any apparent reason (as in the case above). Other more obvious signs might include the incapacity to work closely or co-operatively with peers; or to adapt to change, a new boss, or new technology; the inability to exercise good judgment and common sense; to incorrectly prioritise problems; or failure to exercise good time management. Such incompetence is a direct consequence of emotional inadequacies and insufficiencies - of which 'fear' and emotional immaturity are major, but not the only, contributors. Consider …
Fear of failure
The business and the corporate world lauds success and just contemplating failure can be incapacitating. The imagined consequences - loss of esteem, status and rewards not only provoke stress and anxiety but the preoccupation with failure can make the possibility of success just that much harder, if not impossible. And the more senior the position the more dire the consequences - because the fall is so much further!
Fear of success
Being afraid of success - and having to live up to all that entails - is something strenuously denied in our upwardly-focused business society. Even the most insecure individual feels compelled to adopt a tough, 'winning' persona or risk being labeled a 'Mr Nice Guy' or worse be perceived as 'weak' or a ‘yes-man’. And, since business is largely populated with essentially compliant, passive individuals, meeting a lamb in wolf's clothing is more likely than you might guess! Further, the journey toward success all too often matters more than arriving. For once there, they will have to walk a giddying high tightrope - something an insecure executive dreads. Usually 'programmed' by similarly insecure ('the higher you climb, the further you fall') parents, the incompetent inevitably commits unconscious acts of self-sabotage (like getting fired) in order to return to the comfort of re-starting the journey.
Fear of Ambiguity
People are crippled by an inability to perform in the absence of a disciplined and structured work environment. More subtly, managers and executives are no exception. Faced with any kind of 'choice' or any shade of grey, they freeze, even though they may be extremely well educated and informed. Handling conflict, communications and relationships in today's flexible, multi-generational, hi-technology workplaces presents one such challenge among many.
As seemingly competent people progress up in the organisation, small inadequacies (considered insignificant at junior levels), begin to have major consequences. Masked by years of compensating behaviour (and therefore also hidden from our CEO) these inadequacies assume a more complicated and contradictory complexion on becoming a manager (affecting judgment, decisions, relationships, communication and customers. Moreover it is the level of emotional maturity (adjustment) attained by the executive while 'growing up' that enables them to cope with the pressures of higher office. The problem becomes clearer with the realisation that only a handful of people truly 'grow-up' and that most executives have some minor flaws stemming from immaturity or anxiety.
Genuinely mature (grown-up) executives are hard to distinguish from emotionally immature executives. Therefore it is often easier to identify emotional immaturity. But evidence of immaturity can be difficult to detect because any 'weaknesses' are carefully hidden behind a crafted, finely honed facade. Spotting immaturity requires discerning, objective observation (of manner, appearance, conversations and actions) and subtle signs are difficult to see at close quarters. Such close scrutiny rarely occurs in most offices and thus unrealistic optimism in the face of difficulty may be interpreted as 'positive attitude'; a preoccupation with seniority and status may seem like 'ambition'; postponing or deferring unpleasant tasks might be taken as being 'prudent'; impulsiveness as 'courage', and so on. (See a full list of face-savers in our article ‘How Managers Survive a crisis – spotting face-saving behaviour in organisations’)
Other Contributors to Executive Incompetence:
Three other behaviours are significant when considering executive performance:
Perfectionists typically deny their insecurities by setting unrealistically high standards, towards which they strive under enormous pressure on themselves and others around them. They have difficulty delegating (in the mistaken belief no one could do it as well – or as quickly - as they can) and they procrastinate in search of 'excellence' which always eludes them.
Ambivalent employees, resentful of the 'survival-of-the-fittest' for profit and promotion of the corporate world, become angry at their dependence on the organisation for security and income. While projecting loyalty and dedication they 'get even' by withholding their best efforts and competence.
Some people don't want to do the job (even though they loudly protest otherwise) because their life interests (unconscious goals) lie elsewhere. Perhaps in art, music, teaching, traveling or something else and, providing they have sufficient financial resources, they will pursue these interests with more or equal fervor and passion than 'work'.
Recognising Incompetence in Executives:
MOST CEOs (like the one above) fail to recognise incompetence as an emotional issue because they wrongly assume most people on their team are as well adjusted as they are (a minor flaw prevalent in most leaders). Sometimes they are just too ‘close’ to spot it until it is too late. Recognising emotional incompetence in others is difficult because such executives disguise and protect their inabilities in a number of conscious and unconscious ways with behaviours that can seem perfectly legitimate and normal. The incompetent executive however is simply unable to make decisions or take action under any kind of pressure and will commonly engage face-saving activity or behaviour that will satisfy one or more and perhaps all, of the following criteria:
(i) deny the incompetence exists (notably to themselves) and promote seemingly rational explanation for the failure;
(ii) remove themselves from the source of the stress or problem;
(iii) elicit sympathy and/or command attention from work colleagues (and guilt from management);
(iv) blame someone else and/or punish the boss for the position they find themselves in (“look what you made me do” … “you pushed me too hard now look at the consequences”).
Addressing the problem of executive incompetence:
THE CHIEF Executive must surround himself with a team of people who are competent if he is to be successful. Yet, thanks to a carefully polished facade (masking emotional inadequacies) pointing to strengths that don't exist and practiced face-saving behaviours, incompetent executives almost always look good at interview and seem to perform well - at least for a time - once they are employed. How then does the savvy CEO proceed? Three 'cures' might be considered.
1. Astute Recruitment
While really prevention, rather than a 'cure', the first solution lies in careful recruitment. Something easily overlooked where recruitment may be a packaged, cost-determined commodity or when 'good' candidates are hard to come by and hiring decisions are ‘pushed’ by market forces. Identifying authentically competent executives is tricky at the best of times (the smarter practice to make negative selections, i.e. to identify and discard the least emotionally competent people in the selection process) but it takes time to get all the information required for proper judgment. If there is any significant doubt arising from interview, reference checking, testing or 3rd party examination, the best advice we can offer is to keep searching for a better candidate.
2. Proper Placement in the Organisation
There is a role for almost everyone in organisational life. Square pegs for square holes, round pegs for round holes, etc. Problems arise when someone is 'placed' above their level of competence and “wins” a job above or beyond capacity to function effectively. Once an 'incompetent' is in place it can take a long time (and considerable expense) to remove them. Emotional insufficiency is harder to detect than a skills deficit. The emotional demands of the job (separate to the technical match) may be only just beyond them – and therefore may take months to discover. Even if a deficiency becomes obvious soon after appointment, it may take weeks to resolve. Further, almost everyone working around a mismatch will become increasingly disaffected.
The thing to do (and the cure) is to either quickly re-structure the job (this removes stress for the person and risk for the company) or move the person to a different position. Neither may be easy to do (and will need sensitive handling) because the 'proper placement' will sometimes seem like a demotion (which indeed it may be). The challenge here is for management to create and foster a culture that does not assign negative values to people who may sometimes either step back or move sideways.
3. Team work
A third solution lies in blending the Personal Development of individuals (particularly in developing emotional intelligence) and teamwork. Difficult individuals are only accepted in to a team when that person possesses special (hard to find) technical skills which are acknowledged by the group who will tolerate quirky behaviours say for creativity. This trade off however is rare. More often leadership teams succeed because of the synergy between team members, who contribute different insights, perspectives and experiences and importantly, complement each other. Remember:
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” (Aristotle)
The net effect is that ‘technicians’, who have acquired some insight to their shortcomings, may function effectively in a team if they can build co-operative relationships, which enables the team to get things done. Over time (and perhaps with some help from a mentor or coach) they may also become concerned with group success, more so than consumed by distracting individual goals and thereby make a real contribution.
A team, with a leader who has a special insight and concern for individual team members, can also help the otherwise competent executive come to grips and deal with their shortcomings through a process of feedback and group activity.
An Executive Shortlist review of Leadership,
Evaluation and Development issues
Telephone (+61-2) 9929 9990