How to Handle Ineptitude

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Ineptitude is a difficult issue to combat because there are, obviously, different levels of ineptitude.  They range from someone who is selectively disinterested in a specific task (I would argue this is the most frequent), all the way to completely dysfunctional.  In the case of the latter, expedient dismissal is the best option.  That being said, dismissal is a difficult issue to work with based upon your own organization’s policies regarding termination, and so, I won’t go into detail beyond documentation and getting them out as soon as is practical.

In the case of selective disinterest in certain pieces, however, there are some things you can do to help them to integrate more effectively into the team.

  1. When you first notice their lack of interest, and subsequent failure to complete their task in a timely fashion, take them aside and speak to them about what problems they are encountering.  This should be an exploratory meeting rather than a disciplinary one.  Start with your assumptions and facts that you see, and then probe them about the reasons for failing to meet expectations.
  2. Based upon the interview, discuss with them how to remedy the problems.  This should include mutually agreed-to milestones and timeframes that must be hit.
  3. If the reason for their lack of completion includes a “lack of knowledge” in any particular area, take it upon yourself to contact your fellow managers (or even individuals in your team) to mentor them in that particular knowledge area.
  4. If you find that there are no reasons that seem acceptable to you for their failing, explain to them why the task is an important one.  Who will be affected by the delay?  Why is this piece important to the successful completion of the project on time?  If they don’t seem to be understanding, give them the cost of failure in monetary terms.  When someone is informed that their tardiness will result in a $15,0000 additional cost, they tend to pay attention.
  5. Constant vigilance is something you will need to learn to adopt.  Not necessarily to the micromanaging level, but at least enough to ensure that they can and will stay on target.  Sometimes, external motivation is a good kick in the pants, and if the apathy is temporary, or project specific, can be a useful tool to get it done in the short term.

You, as a manager, need to understand your employees.  This is not only how they work, but also what motivates their actions and what is important to them.  By meeting with them on a regular basis, you increase the amount of understanding you have about their inner workings.  Additionally, by making frequent contacts with them, they start to see that you are actually interested and invested in the process they are working on.  If you’re interested, it tends to rub off onto others under your employ.

Your job is to determine how their motivations are manifested.  In an isolated incident, a simple hand holding session to get this particular job done is fine, but if the behavior becomes normal and almost second-nature, there is either something wrong with YOUR leadership style (I know, most don’t want to hear that), or perhaps that they are merely in the wrong situation.  If they’re in the wrong situation (you need to do your own soul searching to find out if that is the case or not), then the time has come to move them into another position/department, or merely release them to pursue other opportunities that would be of more interest to them.

Any other thoughts from my readers?  What do you do with subordinates who don’t show interest in their work?  Are there strategies you have discovered that you can utilize to motivate them beyond money?


  • Often, keeping an individual active in their professional field helps a lot.
    This is assuming of course some sort of core passion still exists in the employee. There’s a difference between completely dysfunctional because of a lack of technical skill set, and completely dysfunctional because they are aware of how to perform their tasks but choose not to out of a lack of motivation and passion. There’s also dysfunctional because of outside factors or events but that’s more of an HR/personal issue.
    By sending the employee to workshops, conferences, ongoing education, you keep their mind fresh, energized, always learning, and the company benefits from their extra knowledge. I don’t know how this works in engineer land, but in designer and programmer and app developer worlds, companies like Adobe and Microsoft reach out to designers/developers with programs designed specifically for this purpose. I just finished designing the graphics for an intranet web site for Microsoft Licensing with that specific ongoing education purpose in mind.
    Another option available, which Host Marriott did whom I worked for, is to have a system and program in place that identifies exceptional employees who have started to record a downward trend in overall job performance and reviews due to general disinterest and boredom. That program was designed to identify those with potential, and guide them in finding other positions within the company that might reignite their full potential. It’s how I went from being a juice boy to working as an HR’s assistant and then ultimately Assistant Controller. It’s how my friend Suha went from being a cashier to being Office Manager. It’s the designed to identify being feeling constricted or bored or overqualified for the position they are in.

    • Christian Fey

      Mike, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us! I agree that there are definitely differing factors that affect an individual’s productivity and give the impression that they don’t know what they’re doing. I think one of the largest reasons is a lack of engagement in the work they’re required to perform, and if that’s the case, training or movement within the organization should be the first thing that an employer attempts. If, however, it’s determined that this person is not going to engage, regardless of position, I think that it shows that they don’t belong in the culture that you have, and it’s time to let them pursue other opportunities elsewhere.

      Thanks for reading!

  • I find that if I give my employees different tasks from their usual duties, they become more interested. This is true with me as well. When my boss tells me he would like me to do something different, even if it is in addition to my normal workload, I feel exhilarated and motivated. It’s like a breath of fresh air and I like to return the favor by allowing my employees to broaden their skill set as well.

    • Christian Fey

      Thanks Erin for your comment! I completely agree with you! Many times, mundane tasks begin to feel overwhelming simply because of a level of apathy at doing the same thing over and over. An influx of new ideas and *gasp* learning something can be the difference between mediocrity and success depending on the person. Although, I have interacted with individuals who are completely happy doing the same thing day in, and day out. I think it’s an individual preference, but I’d argue most prefer some shake-up in their day-to-day duties.

      Thanks again!

  • Christian-

    Thanks for sharing your insight and advice on how to deal with those employees who are often not ideal. You make several salient points that all managers would be good to follow.

    Finding and maintaining quality employees is always a challenge and if employers are able to help create quality employees they are investing in both their business and the lives of their employees. Both of these very worthwhile endeavors!

    • Christian Fey

      Thanks Steve!

      Investing in your employees should be the top priority (in my mind). Obviously, if the mission statement of the company doesn’t include the employees, I have to wonder how they plan to keep customers or shareholders happy if their employees are miserable or wallowing in ineptitude. Some manage to make it work, but the real way that seems to work best is when organizations strive to make customers and shareholders happy BY KEEPING EMPLOYEES HAPPY! Southwest has made themselves one of the top airlines with the best financial returns year-over-year by doing just that. If you keep employees happy, they will in turn keep customers happy.

      I hope you’re well!