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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Talk to them until they change or leave

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Sunday, August 3, 2014 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Difficult question, and I’m not sure I have answer. I guess the place to start is clarify what “competent” means. To my mind, a competent person:

  1. Agrees on basic job role and responsibilities: not always obvious, for instance, the salesperson in a company I know considers his role is to respond to request for quotations from customers, whereas his CEO would like to see him do some cold calling as well. The sales guy simply won’t hear about it? Does it make him incompetent even though he does fairly well at replying to customers when they contact the company? I think so, but it’s a grey area.
  2. Gets on with the job rather than talks about it: in most companies, I find that some people do the work with a minimum of fuss, and others are full of good ideas in meetings, insights in what others should do, reasons why we should be doing something else and meanwhile don’t get on with the basic legwork any job entails. Competence, I believe starts with being autonomous on doing the groundwork steadily and as well as can be.
  3. Shows common sense about obstacles and flags them openly for discussion: many obstacles in doing the job are real – something always happens. Competency is also about identifying real obstacles (as opposed to invent some that are very unlikely to happen in practice) and being willing to flag them and discuss them, rather than park them to a side, work around them and hope no one will notice until the balloon goes up and then they won’t be blamed.
  4. Comes up with ideas about how to do the job better and discusses with others around them practical ways of moving these initiatives further: this goes beyond basic competence, but is part of the general attitude of someone that I’d consider competent. Every one has ideas about how the job could be better, but competent people are willing to discuss them with others, listen to others’ point of views and get to some agreement on what could be done (as opposed to “okay, forget about it”). In other words, they demonstrate leadership – not as a formal role, but as a way of getting things done.

Note that I don’t include “get on well with others” as a criteria for competence – in some jobs, getting on well with others might be part of 1), basic job responsibilities, but in many technical jobs, I’ve come across very difficult personalities, with low interpersonal skills who were extremely competent, albeit difficult. Being an introvert is not a crime, regardless of how it feels like in the current climate of dominant extraversion.

Incompetent people, on the other hand tend to rate a “no” versus “yes” on these 4 criteria, and then pile on passive aggressive behavior in many indirect expressions of hostility, from procrastination, to sarcasm, to sullenness or repeated failure to accomplish certain tasks (think of the salesman who won’t do cold calling) and many other forms of passive resistance to what is ask for them. I frequently encounter a lot of defensiveness, which are endless reasons why something can’t be done, shouldn’t be done, won’t be done, is not asked for nicely enough and so on. Many of these reasons are no doubt correct, so, again, it’s a question of common sense and professional standards.

As far as I can tell from the literature, once someone has put themselves into that mental corner, it’s very, very hard to get them out, unless they choose to do so themselves. The basic causes are:

  1. Insecurity about how to do the job: some people don’t feel secure about basic aspects of their job, and have managed to hide it or work around it for years, mostly due to management vagueness or inattention. When this suddenly comes to light, it’s hard to deal with.
  2. Not liking someone for whatever reason: we’re rational-ish animals and occasionally, we can just take a dislike to a co-worker, a boss or a client, and the frame everything about that person negatively – a kind of reverse “halo” effect (actually, the halo effect also occurs).
  3. Want to be somewhere else: because of either trouble in other spheres of their life, or simply a change of heart, some people simply don’t want to be in their role anymore, but don’t see how to escape, because they need the job, the money or can’t find something else.

The only answer I’ve seen that works on the gemba with incompetent people is to talk to them until they either relent and start learning, or relent and leave. The odd thing is that you never know. I’ve stopped making bets about people a long time ago because I’m always surprised by how any one person is far more flexible that I’d expect, and not necessarily the way I expect it. But in the end, it comes back to observation and discussion:

Passive aggressive people will never come up with NO outright – that would actually be a good sign because it establishes a base to work on collaboratively through training, brainstorming, PDCA and so on. What will happen is more like okay… well, I guess we can do that…. sure, I agree. I mean, if that’s what you really want… and so on, but you don’t understand the workload I’m under… and all the other pressures… but if you tell me this is a priority, no problem… which drives both parties crazy.

The problem of course, is that it takes two to have a conversation and it’s very hard to talk to someone who doesn’t want to talk to you (bear in mind research shows the worst part of anyone’s day is time spent with their boss).

The trick, I suspect lies in disregarding history and facing the facts as they are now, every day. Whatever happened yesterday, today is a new situation, so we can have the conversation again until either of the participants calls it quits: you fire them or they leave. The mistake I see many managers make is start bringing the entire history of the interaction into the conversation – this only makes matters worse, and doesn’t make you look to good as a manager either (plus it depresses other co-workers). So, through selective amnesia, we can have the same conversation again and again until something gives. No easy answers, and the best I can come up with from the gemba.

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