Follow-ups to “Incompetent but Nice”
I received a ton of email, replies, and DMs about Incompetent but Nice. This piece collects some of those replies, and some of my own follow-ups. It’s a bit of a grab-bag, covering:
- Advice on what managers should do – including a definitive answer from Glyph.
- An emerging theme: this is almost always a management failure
- My advice to people who are worried that they are the “incompetent but nice” person, including some detailed notes on why extended leave (longer than 3 months) is more possible than you think
Here we go:
What should managers do?
Glyph wrote what I now consider to be the definitive guide to what to do if you’re managing an “incompetent but nice” person. Glpyh has been on all sides of this, and is in a rare position to speak conclusively about the best way to respond:
- I have been this person, more than once. I have both resigned, and been fired, as a result.
- I’ve been this person’s manager, and had to fire them after being unable to come up with a training plan that would allow them to improve.
- I’ve been an individual contributor on a team with this person, trying to help them improve.
So I can speak to this issue from all angles, and I can confirm: it is gut-wrenchingly awful no matter where you are in relation to it. It is social stress in its purest form. Everyone I’ve been on some side of this dynamic with is someone that I’d love to work with again. Including the managers who fired me!
Perhaps most of all, since I am not on either side of an employer/employee relationship right now1, I have some emotional distance from this kind of stress which allows me to write about it in a more detached way than others with more recent and proximate experience.
Please go read the rest of the article; it’s great.
Advice from other folks I trust echoed Glyph’s more-detailed advice:
IME, try each one in order if the previous doesn’t work:
(0) set clear expectations
(1) coaching, training, etc
(2) encourage (or force) a change of responsibility / position
(3) let them go
I’ve had colleagues like this and if efforts to help them to be more productive fail over an extended period I usually try to help find them a new team where they might become The Best!
I’m pretty convinced that these situations are usually an issue of job fit and if all efforts fail to improve fit in the current team, it’s a waste of time after a certain point to keep trying.
But how long is too long? If they’re brand new to the team and not getting anything done at all, 3mo is about my limit. If there’s a life thing going on and they’ve been on the team for a while, 6mo to a year makes more sense. Some people just really hate change and won’t volunteer for it, even when things aren’t actually working out for them. I feel like so many excuses get made at this stage and at some point you just gotta commit to a deadline.
This is a management failure
A huge theme of Glyph’s response – which I wholeheartedly agree with – is that this is a management failure:
You will need to do a retrospective. Get ready to collect information as you go through the process to try to identify what happened in detail so you can analyze it later. If you are the hiring manager, that means that after you’ve got your self-compassion together and your equanimous professional mood locked in, you will also need to reflect on the fact that you probably fucked up here, and get ready to try to improve your own skills and processes so that you don’t end up this situation again.
I think this framing is terrifically important. Starting from the point of view that this is probably a management failure – rather than something inherent to the person – correctly puts the onus on the manager for letting someone get into a situation like this. Sure, there are situations where there’s not much the manager could have done, but those are rare.
Other people I talked to made the same point:
I think this is often a mismatch between the actual skills a person has and the work assigned. In other words, it is the manager not the worker who is on the left side of your graph.
Anonymous, in a private Slack:
I’ve had this exact issue and finally made the employee redundant this week. It was months in the making, specifically because of the ‘nice’ issue – and offering redundancy (instead of firing) was partly because of that too.
It was a huge mistake on my part – I hired a friend and therefore didn’t interview the way I normally would.
After a fair few attempts to correct paths, train, even try to move roles it because clear he was dragging the rest of the company down.
The approach I’ve taken with making him redundant is to be very gentle with wording and really push his strengths - offering to help with CV and in any other way I can.
Put simply a new job will be better for me and much much better for him. No one is completely incompetent but plenty of people aren’t the right fit for a job and are often miserable because of it
Anonymous, in email:
[M]ake sure they’re not in an impossible role. A week ago I was thinking “why am I not good at this?” then I thought “I’ve never seen anyone be good at the job I’m trying to do”. It felt like I was hunting butterflies and the most gorgeous one landed on my head. I slowly tried to capture this idea before it fluttered away. Because there has to be something there. Either there are people doing it well but I don’t know them and I’m flying blind, or it’s that much set up for failure, or some combination.
I’m pretty sure it’s both, but mostly the “set up for failure” side. I do software engineering and lots of other stuff. It totals up to like 4 different roles, all as an IC. I thought it was okay because of the hours not being bad but it’s not. It’s not like a founder wearing a bunch of hats. It’s more like those teachers that have to run a classroom but then deliver pizzas for tips. And then if they had to take a shift as a therapist, then a debt collector. Too many status switches.
A bunch of people sent me stories like this one. The “set up for failure” dynamic is real, and it’s 100% on the manager to not create no-win scenarios.
Oh no I think this is me
I got MANY emails/DMs with some version of “I think I might be the incompetent nice person at my job” (or, related, “I have been this person in the past”). So many that I can’t write back to everyone individually, but it feels important to have something to offer folks who feel like they’re the “incompetent but nice” person.
Here’s my advice:
Don’t trust your jerkbrain. Imposter syndrome is real. Many people will feel this way at times, and while the feeling is real, sometimes it won’t match the ground truth. It’s important to get some outside perspective and figure out if this is externally visible. I think a lot of people who suspect they’re in this situation might find out that it’s more of an internal feeling of inadequacy than an externally-noticeable fact.
The best thing to do is to ask someone who’s in a position to observe your work if they notice low output. Ideally, this should be your manager, and if you have a manager you trust you should outright ask. If you have a bad manager, ask your peers – someone you know you can trust.
Be wary about looking at supposedly-objective data like commit frequency, lines of code, words written, etc. These measures can sometimes give you clues about how your stack up relative to your team, but they’re also pretty dangerous. Raw output isn’t a measure of impact; it’s not uncommon for someone to write much less code than their teammates, but have it be much more important code. This is particularly true of more senior people – Staff engineers will often spend months researching and experimenting before landing a change. It’s not uncommon for the most senior people on the team to have the lowest apparent output. So it’s fine to look at measures like this as proxies or to use them as a starting point, but take them with a huge grain of salt and don’t draw conclusions just because you land fewer PRs than your peers.
It’s probably not your fault. As discussed above, this is usually a management failure. This is, most likely, a situation that’s not yours to fix, so be gentle with yourself. Accept that if you have a bad boss, or are in a no-win work situation, you might not able to fix it without leaving the role or the company.
Figure out what you need. The most important tactical step you can take is to identify what you need. If there are things about your working situation that could change to make things better, you need to identify what they are. Whether or not you’re able to ask for those things is a different question, but I think it’s important to get clear with yourself about what’s going on. Are you burnt out? Is the job a bad fit? Is there a health issue involved? Do you have commitments outside of work that are so exhausting that you don’t have enough mental bandwidth left? Is there a skill gap? You need to figure out what’s going on before you’ll have a chance to work on it.
If therapy is an option for you, I recommend it. Often, there’s gonna be more than one thing going on, it’s going to be confusing, and a professional can help sort it out. This is particularly true if you suspect there might be a mental health or neurodiversity component here.
If you feel safe doing so, ask your manager for what you need. Look, I’ve managed folks in this category before who never told me what they needed. In a few cases I ended up firing them, and to this day I’m mystified as to what happened. I wish they’d asked me for what they needed! Nearly anything – a change of role, a different work schedule, extended leave – would have been a better outcome than firing them. If you’re struggling, and I’m your manager, I want you to ask for what you need!
That being said, I can understand why you might not be able to ask. Can I conclusively say that I demonstrated I was someone these folks could have trusted? Of course not. I’d like to think that about myself but … building trust is real work, and I’m sure I’m not as good at it as I’d like to think I am.
And there are a ton of managers out there who are not to be trusted. There are bad managers and outright sociopaths who’d take any request for help as a sign of “weakness” and retaliate.
So: ask for help if you can. Especially if your BATNA is quitting – if you don’t have anything to lose, why not ask? But if you can’t, that pretty conclusively points to this being a management failure, so once again, be gentle with yourself.
A note on extended leave
A major theme in the notes I received was a desire for extended time off (i.e. significantly more than their normal PTO/vacation – something like 3 months or more). People had health issues they needed to take care of, family members who needed care, or (most commonly) were suffering from burnout. Folks knew that they needed to take extended leave – we’re talking months here – but hadn’t asked for that.
So here’s a piece of information that I think many are lacking: most companies and managers are willing to approve far more extended leave than you might think possible. A Slack I’m in with hundreds of managers discussed this some time back, and the consensus was:
- 3 months of leave was a slam-dunk, easily doable, and often this could be fully-paid leave;
- 3-6 months was pretty possible, maybe a combination of paid and unpaid (though often up to around 6 months paid leave was going to be possible);
- as much as a year of leave, some combination of paid and unpaid, was hard but still possible in many circumstances.
This matches my first-hand experience: I’ve more often seen extended leave approved than I’ve seen it denied. Even mediocre or outright bad managers will often approve extended leave. Not with a ton of enthusiasm, but even bad managers recognize that approving extended leave is usually better than the alternatives.
The reason is that the alternatives are bad! If someone is struggling with burnout you’re already not getting much out of them. Having them leave for a while isn’t all that huge a drain on productivity – the drain’s already baked in. And replacing staff is way more costly than you might think. We’re talking a minimum of maybe 6-8 weeks in recruiting and interviewing – and that’s an absolute best case. More realistically, it takes 2-4 months just to get a new person in the door. And then it takes them some time, often months, to ramp up to even moderate productivity. 4-6 months is about the shortest you can expect replacing someone to take, and often the ramp-up period is a lot longer (especially for more senior roles).
So you can see why offering extended leave is often an easy decision.
Some companies have official policies around this: leave policies, sabbaticals, etc. And in many jurisdictions there’s some form of legal mandate – e.g. in the US, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) mandates 12 weeks of unpaid leave, with medical benefits, for employers who employ more than 50 people.
However, most companies don’t have official policies (beyond legal mandates) – but will figure out ways to accommodate your request. Usually, there’s a bit of back and forth here between you, your manager, maybe your manager’s bosses, and HR as everyone figures out what combination of PTO, FMLA, and other leave options they can apply in your case, but, seriously, asking for extended leave works out much more often than you might think.
So to recap, if you’re worried that you’re the “incompetent nice person” on your team:
- You might be wrong, it might be imposter syndrome: get some external validation before you beat yourself up.
- Even if you’re right, it’s almost always not your fault: your boss or your company is usually to blame.
- If you want to do something about it, you first need to figure out what you need: set aside whether what you need is something you can get; just figure out internally what’s going on first. Therapy might help.
- If you can, ask for what you need: a good manager will want to help.
- If what you need is extended leave, you’re more likely to get it than you might think.
Thanks to everyone who sent me notes! I’m really glad this piece resonated. As always, if you have further follow-ups, please get in touch.