Five Steps To Deal With Incompetent Team Members

With the world growing smaller every day and multinational workplaces becoming the norm, a full gamut of personalities and varying cultural backgrounds, not to mention a range of skill sets and abilities have to be managed by today’s leaders. While it is all well and good to promote a harmonious, ‘united by one goal’ working relationship, it is also unavoidable to have at least one bad egg in the basket. Ineffective, incompetent employees are present in almost all organisations no matter how hard we try to weed them out during the initial hiring process. To you as a leader, they can present an exceptionally big challenge since firing them may not always be an option or effective solution.

You can, however, choose to see the positive side of this situation. The ability to handle incompetent people and make them active contributors to your growth is a big added asset to your skills as a leader. Ineffective team members also drive you to find solutions beyond the most apparent and be more creative in your approach to daily interactions and processes.

As a leading staffing & recruitment company, TASC Outsourcing has been exposed to possibly every kind of workplace dynamic and witnessed how the best leaders deal with underperforming staff. Here is a list of methods we found most helpful and ultimately more rewarding.

1. Learn to gauge employee abilities better

Incompetent. Ineffective. Underachieving. We are often quick to label employees who are not performing as well as expected. Yet the truth is, people learn at varying paces. Every employee also has specific skills and abilities different from any other. In our history of talent acquisitions, we have never come across an employee who intentionally or maliciously does subpar work to the detriment of a company. Everyone is eager to contribute to a company’s success, but some factors may be hindering them from doing their best. It is the responsibility of a good leader to gauge a staff member’s strengths and weakness and play to them. As Einstein said, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” Of course, this does not mean spending most of your time handholding your team while they work. Show them what they can do, the results you expect and see how they perform. You can even consider them handling a different role to see if they perform better at it.

2. Be open and approachable

We’ve come across instances where the team leader and member relationship had deteriorated so badly that it had devolved into nothing more than a series of email exchanges, often nasty ones at that. In another case, the team leader had become so resigned to his members not doing their jobs properly that he would half-heartedly give out instructions while secretly doing the work himself. This defeatist attitude only results in an even bigger gap in relations between the leader and his team. Instead, a good leader should address the situation head-on, map out a strategic plan for delegating work, and speak to those involved directly. Break down the information into manageable parts, give specific instructions, set clear expectations, while offering complete support as needed.

3. Communicate clearly, precisely and openly

Remember to also document all communication with any member of your team. Of course, verbal instructions and discussing projects openly are ideal. However, having your plans and directions in black and white ensures everyone knows every stage of the project, are clear about their own targets, and have a document they can check back on should they lose their way at any point. It also helps you avoid those unproductive “he said, she said” situations that only cause delays and unnecessary tension for everyone concerned. Communication also goes both ways. Just as employees are expected to hear you out, effective leadership keeps an open mind to feedback and suggestions. Your team members’ opinions and contributions may end up surprising you, and accommodating them will increase their confidence, motivating them to increase productivity in the long term.

4. Keep your goals in mind

When faced with an unproductive member of the team, it is far too easy to just ignore the person and let yourself and others take up the slack. Some studies even show that situations like these increase the productivity of the other members. What the studies don’t show is that it also often breeds discontent amongst the productive members, making for a highly uncomfortable working environment that will end up two ways: either the other members start looking for a “better” workplace, or they become so dissatisfied with a seemingly unfair situation that they decide to underperform too. As an effective leader, it is up to you to make the team work toward the goal you had set out to accomplish. Assess the situation with this in mind. Is your underachieving member’s incompetence undermining the whole team’s efforts? Would this person be more effective in a different role? Would he perhaps contribute better on his own? Is the rest of the team showing any strain as you keep relying on them more and more to make up for his incompetence? See what is happening with the view of how it will affect your ability to achieve your goals. And be prepared to make tough choices that will positively impact the company in the long run.

5. Keep a cool, level head

Dealing with incompetence can be frustrating and appears to be a thankless job. But as the old axiom goes, someone’s got to do it. As a leader, everyone looks to your example and guidance. If the entire office is in chaos, your members expect you to be the calm haven and have answers to everything. This may feel like a big responsibility, and it is, but you also recognize that if leadership is the first to react strongly and negatively to an already stressful situation, you can’t expect your members not to be just as or even more so negatively impacted. Take a deep breath and look at a situation calmly, methodically and strategically. Do not let emotions or your own personal opinions cloud your view of what is actually taking place. Make a list of things to be done by order of priority. If need be, take the person or persons concerned out of the picture temporarily and assign their tasks to others. The company’s operations always come first, and dealing with the people involved will have to wait once the work is done and there are clearer minds all around. Next, respond without judgment. This means confronting the employee with the facts of the matter, not counterproductive finger-pointing, emotional outbursts or fault-finding. Make a straightforward assessment of the situation, listen to the person’s opinions on what happened, and point a clear way forward. At the end of the day, unless you have and can find grounds for termination, this employee will still be a member of your staff. Turning their attitude around and ensuring they are not further demotivated to do their part in the future is up to you. Having to deal with workplace incompetence is a daunting task but one that is simply impossible to avoid. And while you often can’t change a person’s attitude or personality, you can, however, develop your own skills to be better able to handle such employees. Learning to take on the challenge of incompetent employees and turning them into productive, actively contributing team members make the difference between a good leader and a great one.

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