Covering for Incompetence


"When it comes to working for an incompetent manager, you basically have three alternatives: fight, quit, or work; all of which are no-win situations."
- Bryce's Law

The pointy haired manager in Scott Adams' "Dilbert" cartoon has become an icon for management incompetence. Although Adams' character may seem like an extreme, we have all encountered various examples of the Peter Principle whereby people have risen above their level of competency. We see this not only in our companies, but also in the nonprofit organizations we are involved in. Basically, these are some very nice people who simply haven't a clue as to what they are doing and stumble through each day making bad decisions which drives their subordinates to madness.

Before we address what to do with such people let's consider how they got into a position of power in the first place which, quite simply, is by error. Perhaps the three most common causes include:

1. Ascends through seniority - this typically happens when there is nobody else to accept the management position and, as a result, employees advance by seniority. This doesn't mean they are appropriately trained or suited for the new position, they are just "next in line." The common excuse is, "He may not be the most qualified, but he has earned it."

2. Ascends through politics - under this scenario, management selects a person because of his political maneuvering as opposed to any real accomplishment; facade as opposed to substance. This type of person knows how to dress and act the part, but doesn't have a clue as to how to get the job done. This is an example of the "wrong person at the right time."

3. Ascends through pity - due to personal love and respect, a person is selected who is perhaps handicapped or aged and, as such, everyone knows the person has attained the position through pity as opposed to merit. They also know the person is in over his head even before he starts, thus everyone recognizes they must bear the additional burden of supporting the boss. Pity is most definitely not a rational excuse for promoting a person to a management position and I have personally seen this cause some real problems on more than one occasion.

Two things may happen as the incompetent person ascends the throne: they will either decide to take charge of the job themselves (a talent which they are not particularly well suited for and begins to make mistakes), or they surround themselves with trusted advisers who do not necessarily offer the best advice. As a matter of fact, they offer some rather rotten advice and mislead the manager in order to settle their own political scores. Such advisers realize the manager is incapable of making a decision or understand what is going on and, because of this, they seize on the opportunity to promote their own agenda.

So, what do you do when it is well known that the boss is incompetent? Unfortunately, there is no pat answer and a lot depends on your situation, the type of business you are involved with, and the type of person you are. As I see it, other than foul play you have four options:

1. Overthrow the manager - this requires some good political skills, at least better than the manager you are trying to topple. But be careful; if the manager is loved (but not necessarily respected), you will undoubtedly face resistance from the troops and your political maneuvering may backfire.

2. Resign - this is perhaps the easiest option to implement, but it all depends on what you have invested in the company. If a lot, do not be too quick to rush out the door. Perhaps it is in your best interest to ride out the storm and hope better times are ahead.

3. Work harder - it might be better to simply bite your tongue and pitch in to save the department or business. Inevitably, the manager will bask in the glow of success while you will undoubtedly go unrecognized or thanked for your efforts. Nevertheless, you will have a job to come back to after the manager has moved on.

4. Practice passive resistance - if it is necessary to highlight the manager's incompetence so that it becomes painfully obvious to upper management, adopt a position of passive resistance. This means you assume no initiative whatsoever and go precisely by the book; you do no more or no less than what is required for your job. Whereas you had previously been willing to go the extra mile to help the manager, now you are putting forth minimal effort thereby forcing him to call the shots which he inevitably will get wrong. The only danger here though is to not cause the department or business to go into a self-destruct mode.


If the manager has truly risen above his level of competency, he will inevitably cause the department or business to fail. This can be prolonged if his staff pitches in and supports him, or will be accelerated if they back away from him. Therefore, how long you want the incompetent person to remain in charge is ultimately up to the supporting staff. But be forewarned: if the manager fails, will the ship sink with him? If so, you will have to support the manager out of sheer necessity, like it or not.

In some nonprofit organizations, managers are typically placed in a position of authority for a period of one year. Some say, "Well, it's only for a year." But a lot can happen in a single year, particularly if an incompetent manager is left unchecked and wrecks havoc over his area of responsibility.

Fortunately, in most instances, an incompetent manager is rarely allowed to remain in power for an extended period of time. Inevitably, the Peter Principle will kick in thereby forcing upper management to address the situation and hopefully replace the incompetent person with someone better.

If you would like to discuss this with me in more depth, please do not hesitate to send me an e-mail.

Keep the faith.


About the Author

Author: Tim Bryce is a writer and management consultant with M. Bryce & Associates of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the field. He is available for lecturing, training and consulting on an international basis. He can be reached at [email protected]
Comments and questions are welcome.

His writings can be found at:

"PRIDE" is the registered trademark of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) and can be found on the Internet at:

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Copyright © 2008 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.



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