I often wondered how incompetent managers survive the planning process year after year without being detected as incompetent by their hierarchy. It was during my time working with managers that never make decisions – I call them no-decision managers - that I discovered the two tactics they use, to make plans and remain undetected. Any type of plan, from a department expense budget up to the annual plan of a division: the two tactics are the same.
Definition of incompetent
First, let’s define incompetent. At its simplest level incompetence is ‘not possessing the necessary skill to complete a task’, so an incompetent manager is one that is unable to manage. But of course, it is not that simple. There are so many different managerial tasks that not being able to complete just one does not make them incompetent. I would argue that managers become incompetent when they are unable to perform several important tasks in their particular field.
But then who is the judge? Some managers are considered incompetent by their subordinates, but considered star managers by their bosses. These are, for example, toxic managers that put their teams into frustration and anger with their particular psychological behaviour, for instance bullying or manipulating, but can be experts at the other managerial tasks and even bring financial success to their organisation. The hierarchy either ignores them or is not aware that these managers bring suffering to their teams.
Some managers, however, are both toxic and incompetent yet management leaves them in place. These are what Scot Gregory calls the ‘absentee leader’ in his article entitled ‘The Most Common Type of Incompetent Leader,’ (Note 1). One of these absentee leaders is my no-decision manager who is both toxic and incompetent but can stay in place in organisations for many years. A no-decision manager is simply a manager who never makes a decision. I worked with eight of them, three were my bosses, five were colleagues and four survived many years in their organisations without detection as being incompetent.
They showed me how to manipulate the planning process year after year, being both absent for their teams and unable to make decisions. It is a real paradox. If a manager does not make decisions, how is it possible that they can make a plan or a budget? Any planning process requires multiple decision-making at all stages and to be completed, requires the choice of one solution.
The deemed instruction
The first tactic they use is what I call the ‘deemed instruction.’ These incompetent managers simply follow any planning guidelines received from corporate headquarters. They are deemed to be equivalent to a direct order from headquarters or from their boss. No questions are asked. Just implement the request from the hierarchy.
If, for instance, headquarters’ guidelines specify that revenues should increase by 40% and profits by 60%, this will be what the manager presents as their plan. Whether it is achievable or realistic is irrelevant. They present what headquarters wants to see. As simple as that!
Of course, guidelines are there to be followed, and ordinary managers follow them, but not blindly as incompetent managers do. The guidelines, for instance, might indicate that headquarters consider that the market is increasing by 40% in the example above, and the minimum would be to follow the market, but the market in the area of the normal manager might be increasing at 50% and they might put in a plan with this increase in revenues. The incompetent manager follows the guidelines regardless.
After the plan has been approved incompetent managers then spend time finding reasons why they do not realise their plan. From day one, time is spent searching for excuses, and not in implementing the plan.
Deviated upward delegation
Things get complicated for incompetent managers when the annual plan comes without guidelines. This is when they resort to the second tactic, which I call ‘deviated upward delegation:’ to get the boss to tell them what they want in the plan.
The incompetent manager must spend time and invent as many ways as possible to convince their boss to tell them what should be in the plan, as discretely as possible. They need to find a process to persuade him or her to give up as much information as possible. I call it deviated because the objective is to trick the boss into revealing what he or she thinks the plan should be and then make the plan as the boss wants. There is no process of true delegation on the part of the boss.
This information-giving process is not that different from what goes on between a normal manager and their boss. A normal manager would also seek the boss’s opinion on their proposal to see if, in principle, the boss was in agreement, before making the final decision. A normal manager, though, presents proposals and tests them out on the boss. An incompetent manager proposes nothing. They follow the boss’s orders to survive.
A plan, for an incompetent manager, is just an administrative task that needs to be completed to satisfy the boss and headquarters. Nothing else. There is no attempt to think about objectives, goals, roadmaps or any of the classic planning principles. For a boss, this behaviour should be easy to detect, but if they are unaware of their inherent incompetence, then the incompetent managers will remain undetected.
Bosses should be wary of headquarter guidelines and plans that come in exactly as requested. They should question changes of behaviour of their subordinates during the planning process, especially multiple requests for information and opinions.
Note 1: The Most Common Type of Incompetent Leader, Scott Gregory, 30th March 2018, Harvard Business Review.