This is an article about incompetent bosses.

Incompetent Bosses

Artz, Goodall & Oswald (2016) wrote an article the in which they come to the conclusion that the competence of a boss has a high impact on employee well-being. That means that appointing managers with a deep technical expertise could be beneficial. This is counter-intuitive to current leadership development practice, that says that a leader can lead without that deep expertise. Many leadership literature and experiences show that deep subject-matter knowledge seems to even hinder the leadership capacity of managers.

In the article, the authors measure supervisor competence with three concepts:

  1. whether the supervisor worked his/her way up inside the company
  2. whether the supervisor could in an emergency do the employee’s job
  3. the supervisor’s assessed level of competence

The first two are only indirect indicators of supervisor competence. The latter is a subjective assessment by the employee of the technical competence of their manager. And here’s the thing. If you assess the relevance of deep technical knowledge for employee well-being, what do you compare it with? An employee expects a lot of things from a supervisor. How important is deep technical competence in the overall equation? And would an employee prefer someone with deep technical knowledge but with lousy leadership behavior over a supervisor with the reverse qualities?

The Boss from the Inside

Leaders who come from within a company have a higher chance of success. That is probably less because they have a deep technical know-how.  It’s more because they have a cultural fit, understanding of the social and political dimension of the organization and are more acceptable as “one of us”. And yes, understanding of the business is also a part of speedy induction into the job. A leader coming from within can skip the first 90 days.

The Competent Boss

Many employees do indeed prefer a supervisor with deep technical knowledge. Many employees still cherish the idea that they need to be able to go to the supervisor with technical problems and ask for technical solutions. They have the idea that a supervisor needs to be the best among the pack. What else would justify a managerial position? And sometimes they are very cruel when they notice that their manager knows less about the job than they do. They seem to forget that a supervisor has many other supervisory roles than having and maintaining a high level of expertise.

In 1980 (!) Sasser and Leonard wrote in Harvard Business Review

“Being a first-level supervisor is one of the most difficult, demanding, and challenging jobs in any organization. Buried in an organizational web, this person must be adroit at administering a unit and at perceiving which, among all the daily tasks delegated downward, are the most important to accomplish. Through such administrative competence, he or she must be able to link the unit’s accomplishments to the functioning of other organizational subunits.”

In that older article, the authors state that supervisors need to work on human relations and technical competence. But they also state that

“First-level supervisors must of course have technical competence in the areas they supervise. The supervisors must be able to perform the specific tasks they ask their workers to do and must, to some degree, understand the equipment and the process technology they manage.

Technological changes continue to occur rapidly, though, and supervisors can no longer hope to understand completely all the complex equipment and processes they are in charge of. New products and new processes abound.

Having good technical skills gives supervisors both enough understanding to deal with the many specialists brought in to accomplish the units’ objectives and the ability to train subordinates in their tasks.”

To Have or to Maintain Technical Competence?

Having technical competence helps. If a company would appoint a supervisor without technical skills, this person might get into trouble. And if the supervisor would have no technical skills, it would be advisable to use some of those first 90 days to acquire sufficient understanding to be able to ask the right questions. It’s hard work. As I said, workers are sometimes cruel in dealing with a supervisor they see as being less competent than they are. They will put the new manager to the test.

Maintaining deep technical competence is impossible. It is very likely that due to technological, legal, contextual evolutions the leader cannot maintain the deep competence he or she once had. He or she cannot stay ahead of the others. They will lose their position of being the best. Even if they would try, leaders will eventually and even hopefully lose that battle. Why hopefully? Because the wish to stay ahead of the others could provoke negative behaviours. These behaviors include keeping team members “stupid”, dividing knowledge and responsibilities so that no-one has the full picture, hiring people with limited or no potential, … All of these are harmful to the organization and its employees.

It is the destiny of any supervisor to have people in the team who know better. I would even say it’s the purpose of any supervisor to make sure that team members become more knowledgeable than they are. If they don’t focus on the individual development of team members, their employees will assign them the role of savior or fire-fighter. And then they leaders would be truly incompetent and lacking influence. If leaders has to serve their people, could they not better serve them by making them competent, rather than depriving them of learning opportunities?

Assessment of the Boss’s Competence

If you ask employees about their leader’s technical competence, you get will get an answer about just that. Could someone work for a technically incompetent or less competent manager? The answer is yes, provided that this manager is also a leader. Maybe the biggest contribution of a leader, is to make sure the team and every person in it, succeeds. For that a supervisor needs to create a context in which that is possible. Having deep technical knowledge might even be harmful to this important leadership role for several reasons.

  1. Deep technical knowledge might hinder the supervisor in looking for other solutions.
  2. Maintaining deep technical knowledge might consume so much time, there is no time for other leadership activities
  3. Deep technical knowledge might lead to micro-management
  4. Deep technical knowledge might reduce chances of development for team members because they do not have to look themselves for solutions as their expert-manager has all the answers.
  5. The wish to be an expert-manager might lead to dark behavior.

Losing technical knowledge

Taking on a supervisory role, means letting go off (a part of) the technical dimension of the job. The higher one climbs in the hierarchy the less technical know-how is needed. Foremen will work along his team and do similar tasks. But their managers will have more distance to the technical process. And their managers might not have a clue.

But the latter ones also will need to have enough understanding of the core technical process to ask the right questions, look in the right places, involve the right people and take the right decisions. But they will never decide about the how something needs to be done, but rather about the why, the what and the who. Losing the technical dimension is beneficiary for both the organization and the people doing the technical work.

So incompetent bosses are everywhere and performing well.

Some advice

Here is some advice for so-called incompetent bosses who enter a role without having deep expert knowledge

  • Get a taste: make sure you acquire enough to understand the business you’re in. If you’re the CEO of a wholesaler, go and work on the shop floor. Do some basic stuff, interact with the customers, get to know how things are done. But be humble and appreciative in doing that.
  • Do not pretend: if you don’t know, you don’t know. There is no point in pretending you do. There are enough people in your company who do know. Get their advice and let them decide on the technical issues.
  • Don’t exaggerate in your first 90 days. Do not throw out technical people because they’re not strategic enough. You might get rid of invaluable know-how and damage the DNA of your company at the same time.
  • Surrounded yourself with more competent people. They can deal with technical issues, train new people on the team.
  • Never assume you know. There is a temptation to transfer earlier knowledge to the current environment. Don’t assume that is possible. Be very careful when you want to enter a technical discussion. You should ask more questions than give answers.
  • Don’t feel incompetent or leave. If you feel incompetent and it continues to bother you, you might be in the wrong role. Maybe you are more an expert than a manager. If it bothers you, do something.
  • Be thankful. Many people will be willing to help you to succeed in your role. they will compensate for your technical incompetence. They will do so, because your success is also theirs. Be thankful when that happens.

Can People Really Work for Incompetent Bosses?

Yes, they can. But they can only when there is a positive return. If the manager is a leader who focuses on development of people, meaningfulness and purpose and trust they will forgive the (technical) incompetence of a leader. If on the contrary they are confronted with a weak leader who plays power games, is not trustworthy and does not invest in personal development and purpose, they will implicitly commit acts of sabotage. The lack of competence then becomes a weapon in the hands of unwilling people.

The Article of Artz e.a. (2016) does not provide sufficient evidence for the unique role of technical knowledge in the employee experience compared to other supervisory roles. However, it confirms what people have known for decades: having technical knowledge is helpful. True, the authors wanted to see what the role of supervisors is in the labor market. So if you’re boss is competent you could indeed be more happy at work. But if your boss is not a leader you could be truly unhappy.

I argue that the role of supervisors in the labor market is more oriented towards providing decent work and enabling sustainable employability (including well-being) by adopting leadership behaviors and not by having deep technical expertise.

Let the debate continue.

Read also

———————————————

  • Artz, B., Goodall, A.H. & Oswald, A.J. (2016). If Your Boss could do Your Job You’re more likely to Be Happy at Work. Harvard Business Review
  • Artz, B., Goodall, A.H. & Oswald, A.J. (2016). Boss Competence and Worker Well-beingIndustrial relations and Labour Review
  • Sasser, E. & Leonard, F.S. (1980). Let First-Level Supervisors do their Job, Harvard Business Review, 58(2), pp. 113-121
David Ducheyne

David Ducheyne

David. is Chief People Officer for Securex. He's the author of a book on sustainable leadership. Avid Blogger and key note speaker.

Incompetent Bosses: Can People Work for Them?
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