Why Are My Federal Employees Incompetent? 4 Reasons That Might Change How You Lead

I’ve heard that question from a lot of over-stressed federal leaders and managers. When the fire hose is on full force and the scrutiny is increasing, having a team that can’t produce is a killer. I sympathize and I think there are at least four possible reasons why.

1. They actually are incompetent, or more likely, a few of them might be. The reality is that not all of your people are incompetent. It’s a minority and if you feel like everyone is, see numbers 2-4. But every organization has at least a few people over time that just can’t get there, no matter what you do. So here’s my advice: stop spending time on them. Identify your good people and figure out what it is they need to be successful. You have 8-10 hours a day, and spending the bulk of that time motivating people who can make things happen is a lot more productive then spending it trying to remediate the few who will never get there.

2. You’re making them incompetent. I’ve seen this a lot. Given the pressures from above and without, some federal managers get overwhelmed. That leads to anxiety and anger, and most of all, blame. If I’m working hard and we still aren’t getting it done, it must be the fault of my people. There’s really nowhere else to look. But when we micromanage or manage by harsh criticism, even good people just give up. What’s the point in trying to satisfy you? You’re never satisfied. (See this blogfrom Dr. Jim Goldstein on it.) Sometimes as a leader and manager, you need to step back and see if you’ve fallen into this trap. Pushing harder isn’t always the best approach.

3. They don’t know what to do. Even really ineffective people can make some contribution as long as they know what direction you need them to go in. Leaders spend time a lot of time with higher ups, outside stakeholders, and in various meetings. It’s hard to remember that not everyone else went to the same meetings or got the same information. When you are frustrated, ask yourself:

• Was I clear about what I’m asking for?
• Is it something people can take action on?
• Did I give them context?

4. They don’t think you’re right. This is a really dangerous situation. I’ve seen this with several of our clients and it’s something I’ve lived in my own company. Sometimes your people know you need to go in a different direction than you’re taking them. When this happens, people come to the office and have to do things they know aren’t going to work because the leader is off course. The gap can really get wide here and kill an organization. Keep your antennae up and be willing to admit that you’re wrong or your going to need to fire a lot of people.

What do you think? Are there more reasons? More solutions?

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Jaime Gracia

Number one is vital, as spending energy on dead weight is time consuming and pointless. As a federal manager once told me, bureaucrats get paid every two weeks, since accountability in government is often nonexistent.

Nonetheless, you need to focus internally as failed leadership is often the cause behind low-functioning teams. Empowered, energetic team members that consistently produce usually have strong leaders in these organizations.

Before you cast the “incompetent” card on your team, look in the mirror. The incompetent one may be you.

Anne Steppe

Am I glad you’re not my supervisor! By the tone of this blog, you are your own worst enemy. As Jaime Gracia said, you need to look in the mirror. Any leader worth his or her weight in salt would provide OTI’s to non-performing employees, understand his/her employees abilities enough to know who needs micromanagement and who to leave alone, would undertake improving his or her own communication skills if employees continually fail to understand your direction, and if they don’t think you are right, again, your failure to effectively communicate the issues could be partially to blame. And even if I think my supervisor is wrong, I will do what the supervisor wants if only to stand back and enjoy what follows when things don’t work out they way the supervisor envisioned. The negativity being expressed is, I hope, was a result of a really bad week at work and you needed to blow off some steam.