When you've trained as a professional and spent some years honing your skills and putting it all into practice, you know what competence looks and feels like in your area of technical specialisation. Your investment in education and further professional development have provided you with the skills and the ability to do what you do to a high standard and the results speak for themselves. Your reputation grows as a direct result of the outcomes you achieve and how they are perceived.
The same principles apply to management. In every field, and whatever their level of seniority, managers must apply a wide range of relevant skills and knowledge competently. They must also possess the qualities and abilities necessary to be effective. Like professionals, managers too are judged by the outcomes they produce and the results they achieve.
The prospect of being seen as an incompetent manager can greatly concern professionals moving into management. It might loom large if you are replacing an incompetent manager or if your new role is in a setting where incompetent management is dominant. It is important for experienced and newly-appointed managers alike to be clear about what constitutes management incompetence and the steps to take to ensure that your competence as a professional is matched by your competence as a manager.
As with professional incompetence, management incompetence can be glaringly obvious but it can also take a while to become evident.
The early warning signs
At its heart management is about organising planning controlling and problem-solving and a key output of management work is to produce an appropriate degree of predictability and order. These aspects remain as important in the information age as they were in earlier times though the application is very different when you are managing knowledge workers.
When a manager works without a plan which has been shared with others if their approach creates chaos for colleagues or if it is not at all clear what they are aiming to achieve then it is safe to say that management incompetence is involved. When staff are unclear about strategic direction and their expected contribution or if they have a sense of the big picture but no sense of how progress is measured then management incompetence is operating somewhere.
The early warning signs that you have encountered an incompetent manager are that he or she routinely does two or more of the following:
• Works longer hours than anyone else but nobody knows why;
• Makes decisions based on what leaves them feeling comfortable not what is right;
• Calls for and creates reports as a substitute for two-way communication;
• Sees complexity as cause to call in a consultant.
• Struggles to make the decisions that others need them to make;
• Deals with problems by identifying who to blame;
• Assumes that everyone thinks like they do
Where personal health and wellbeing are concerned we all make choices about how long to leave symptoms of concern before taking action. Education and informed decision-making including calling on expert help where necessary are key to optimal health for individuals. Competent managers know that the same principles apply to organisational health and wellbeing. They are alert to the symptoms that organisational health is not what it should be and they take steps to understand the root causes. Then they make informed decisions about how to deal with the symptoms.
Management incompetence should be suspected when any of the following lingering symptoms are evident:
• Staff morale is low over an extended period;
• Conflict remains unresolved;
• Abuses of power occur; or
• Performance is consistently disappointing; • Dysfunctional behaviour persists
• Blaming and scapegoating abound.
Of course staff morale can suddenly plummet due to an adverse event or an unanticipated change of circumstances and performance can suffer because of unanticipated problems – but when symptoms like these persist it usually means that managers have failed to take the actions necessary to first understand the causal factors and then to act wisely to deal with them. The most incompetent managers have been known to simply turn the other way or put their head in the sand!
'Conscious incompetence' and learning
In the beginning we are all incompetent; every well-honed skill and ability has been developed from a level of incompetence in that skill; this is the nature of learning. The skilled engineer the master craftsperson and the research scientist have all had to learn and practice to become competent.
So too managers engage in learning to transform relative incompetence into appropriate competencies. It is important to differentiate between the ‘conscious incompetence' of a manager with an indentified skill gap who is working hard to acquire new skills and the ‘unconscious incompetence' of the manager who oblivious to their shortcomings carries on with the same approach to their work regardless of the adverse effects around them.
There are steps you can take as a professional learning to be a manager to ensure that your reputation is safe as you work hard to transform your areas of conscious incompetence:
• Make it known that you are keen to learn and find a mentor for the most important areas;
• Commit to reflective practice as a complement to other approaches to learning;
• Plan your professional development as you would any other project and measure your progress.
• Apply the learning approaches that have served you well as a professional to learning about good management practice;
• Seek and act on feedback from reliable sources;
Looking for more ideas?
For readers with an interest in the topics covered in this article the following titles are available on the website:
|The Qualities of Successful Managers|
|Being Sidelined: Work out why|
About the Author
Dr Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator specialising in organisational development and team dynamics through her company FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (www.fourleaf.com.au). She facilitates strategic planning and team development undertakes organisational reviews using a collaborative approach coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures.
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