Wednesday, May 29, 2024

MACKAY: Don't let incompetence become your Titanic

| May 9, 2021 1:00 AM

The Titanic was state-of-the-art. No expense had been spared to make sure that it would be unsinkable. The officers were unconcerned by their inability to get accurate information on possible hazards that might lie in its course.

The ship had two lookouts on its masts, but they had no binoculars. The crew could see far enough ahead to react to danger, but, unbelievably, they had no way to get that information to the captain if they did see a problem approaching.

And we all know what happened. The unsinkable ocean liner went to her doom, along with most of her passengers on her maiden voyage — the victim of a disastrous collision with an iceberg.

Disasters like this can happen in business also if we aren't careful to make sure vital intelligence doesn't get swallowed up by internal bureaucracy and inattention to detail.

Most of you have probably heard of the Peter Principle, a management concept developed by Dr. Laurence Peter. It observes that people in a hierarchy "rise to a level of incompetence." They don't start out as incompetent, but rather are promoted until they reach a level of respective incompetence.

An obvious solution to the Peter Principle is for companies to provide training for employees before they receive a promotion to ensure they are qualified for the job to which they are being promoted.

For example, I've seen many outstanding sales representatives promoted to sales manager when they don't have any experience developing business plans, setting sales quotas and sales plans, analyzing data, mentoring a sales force, hiring and firing and so on.

Besides a lack of training, there are numerous other factors resulting in incompetence in the workplace, such as sheer laziness, poor communication and lack of people skills.

People are lazy for a variety of reasons. People become sloppy in checking their work and thus make multiple mistakes. They show up late for work and often don't look professional when they do. Waiting until the last minute to get assignments done can also be a sign of laziness.

The most basic yet crucial leadership skill is communication, yet many people struggle with giving clear instructions. To make communication really work, we have to make sure the people we're talking with understand what we are saying as well as we do. Communication requires both effective sending and receiving. To avoid a breakdown in communications, break down your message so that everyone can understand it.

From time to time, it's a good idea to reevaluate your performance in these fundamental areas: speaking, listening, writing, leading meetings and resolving conflict. Talk is cheap, but misunderstandings can be costly.

Communication ranks high among top people skills, but incompetent people also lack social skills like patience, politeness, sympathy and teamwork. They are often rude, overbearing, hot-headed, tactless and have trouble getting along with others.

Many companies have had to reduce costs, which puts a heavy burden on otherwise competent employees by spreading them too thin. Where possible, managers should consider outsourcing or hiring contractors to take away some of the burden. Those costs will be money well-spent.

Other companies hire people and expect too much, too soon. Hiring is much more than filling an open position. Not everyone hits the ground running. People grow at various speeds. Help them prove their competence by setting clear, achievable goals. If they fail, the fault may lie more in the hiring process than in the employee's lack of skills.

Incompetence in one area doesn't necessarily carry over. We all have strengths and weaknesses. The balance between the two often determines the perception of competence. Build on your strengths, but don't ignore your weaknesses.

Let's face it, everyone has had an incompetent moment or two or three in their lifetime. That includes me. When I was starting my envelope manufacturing company many years ago, I worked many long, long days. One night, when I got home late again, my very pregnant wife, Carol Ann, told me that the light in the hallway wasn't working. I flipped the switch and sure enough, no light. I thought there was a short in the switch or something, so I called our electrician.

He fixed the problem early the next morning, handed me the bill and said, "This is the first time I've ever made a house call to change a light bulb!"

Mackay's Moral: The time to right the ship is before incompetence becomes impossible.

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Harvey Mackay is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive." He can be reached through his website,, by emailing or by writing him at MackayMitchell Envelope Co., 2100 Elm St. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414.