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Learning Curve or Incompetence?


Learning Curve or Incompetence?

21:18 16 August in Employee Development

What is the difference between someone on the learning curve versus an employee who is incompetent?

This subject came up when I was chatting with the senior leader at one of my clients. On the one hand the manager wants his organization to take calculated risks and on the other hand employees are reluctant to take chances and be punished for failure.

The senior leader’s definition of performance is an employee or manager who delivers on their commitments. An employee who repeatedly fails to deliver on commitments is demonstrating incompetence.

One way an employee reduces their risk is to avoid making commitments or soften their commitments. A new employee might not be experienced enough to make a realistic commitment. They might lack the knowledge of what is possible. They might under estimate resources or over estimate capabilities or they might want to tell the boss what he or she wants to hear instead of what is realistic. That said, the strongest commitments are those made by the employee, not imposed by the manager.

In real life however senior executives are known to impose “stretch” goals by requiring commitment to goals and timelines that might appear impossible to their direct reports. And frequently employees rise to this challenge and achieve what was perceived as impossible. The best blend is a negotiated commitment between the employee and manager.

As a side note, in a high-achieving organization there can be a tendency for managers to make ambitious commitments without thinking through how those commitments interact with one another and deliver overall value. In this case the senior leader needs to clarify the big picture so that managerial commitments can be made in the proper context.

When it becomes evident that the employee or manager is not able to deliver on their commitments, it is important to examine the circumstances. Inevitably their will be valid reasons why the results fell short. And yet high performers find a way to beat the odds and hit the numbers regardless of the circumstances.

Excuses, finger pointing and blame storming are examples of defensive behavior. Accountability requires owning the consequences (good or bad) from your actions. Therefore failing to deliver on commitments needs to be owned by the individual along with an explanation, a more realistic goal and a plan to reach the goal.

Today’s Leadership Action Tip

  • Negotiate commitments that are both a “stretch” and can be owned by the employee.
  • Be prepared to adjust the commitments to conditions and circumstances by adjusting resources, time lines or deliverables.
  • Evaluate any failure to deliver results against the individual’s track record.
  • Apply consequences – rewards and recognition for success and coaching and correction for failure.
  • Examine repeated inability to deliver on commitments as incompetence.

Transparency between the leader and their direct reports will allow for an open dialogue about both commitments and results.


make your best hire

Robert Montgomery
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