Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Feb 22, 2010

Ask A Manager:

Dick Whitman, Manager in Residence

Dear Manager, 

What should we do when the boss' favorite is the one who slacks off, always makes messes that others have to clean up, or is just plain incompetent? When this person is a pro at charming the boss, and rolling up his/ her sleeves to "save the day" when it was his mess in the first place, how do you address the issue without looking like you're not being a team player? 

First let me help you to understand why this might be happening. How can your otherwise competent manager just not see that this guy is a total drain? Well, there’s a little something called a blind spot that we are talking about here. As much as I would like to think it’s not true, we all have them. I’ve seen many quality managers carry dead weight direct reports for long periods of time, and I have to admit I’ve had some situations where I’ve done the same.

This can certainly come about due to the manager’s ego being stroked by the individual in question. A vain manager is prone to flattery so if this employee is what you might call a “suck-up”, then he can certainly gain favor easily. But I don’t think this is the most common cause of this issue. Let’s assume that your manager is a sharper cookie than that. Why then does this still happen? I see two major reasons. 

The first is the value of loyalty. Experienced managers learn to live with the fact that many employees generally are in it for themselves. They aren’t always straight with you. Sometimes they can shut down on you when you need them most, and sometimes they just plain up and leave. So when a manager has a history with someone who has been there through the tough times, and who has a string of past contributions under his leadership, it really counts for something. You should realize that this might have happened long before you were around to see it. 

In this case, the manager feels some reciprocal loyalty to the employee based on their history together. So while the employee may have excelled in a prior role, he probably does not belong in the current role due to a mismatch of skills. Perhaps because of this past loyalty he has been promoted before he was ready and now he is floundering. 

All of this can cause the manager to (consciously or unconsciously) overlook the employee’s inability to meet the needs of the role. I believe you see this scenario more often as you go to higher levels in an organization, because this is where you tend to find leaders with longer professional histories who have brought their loyalists along with them. Unfortunately, this issue is more dangerous at the higher levels because it will generally mean that the employee who is living in the blind spot might be responsible for actually running a large part of the organization.

The second factor that contributes to the blind spot is somewhat similar to the effect of loyalty, only on a smaller scale. It happens when an employee is extremely good at one specific thing. I mean this guy is so damn good at that one thing, and there is no one who has ever been better. Ever. If pressed, even those who can’t stand working with him would admit it. So if this one thing is important to the manager, the employee’s skill in this area will have such a powerful impact as to cloud the fact that he is otherwise a scourge on the organization! 

The worst part is that the other employees often do not even recognize the value of that one thing because it is specific to what the manager needs to run things. As such, it is not necessarily apparent to the entire team. This impact of this employee’s benefit to the manager in this one area is amplified if the area itself was a cause for crisis or pain in the manager’s organization until this employee came along to address it. This is a big driver of the loyalty effect that I already outlined.

I call employees like this “10%ers”, as in 10% of what they do is really important and it they do it better than anyone. Unfortunately managers who focus on this 10% can spend a lot of time ignoring the other 90% where the employee is wreaking havoc on the organization. 

If you understand the reasons that your manager seems so dense in relation to this one issue, it might help you to address it. Assuming you respect your manager and you have an open relationship with him, you might be able to frame some discussion in a way that does not create undue conflict. This also assumes that the manager wants what is best for his organization, but in my view I think most do.

You should know that generally it takes a manager a long time to resolve these issues, but continuous input from the team on the impact that this employee has is important. Your manager might seem to dismiss it at first, or even become defensive. Sometimes the manager knows very well what the employee’s weaknesses are but he chooses to overlook them for reasons outlined above. In these cases, his defense of the decision to ignore the weaknesses can come across as favoritism. In other words, your boss might know very well that he has a problem, but in trying to protect his employee and stand behind his own past decision, he could outwardly project a defensiveness that manifests itself as favoritism.

So my advice is that you try and see the reasons that this person is still around. Don’t be so quick to assume that your boss doesn’t see the negatives, and don’t assume that this person really is the “favorite”.  If you do approach your boss with concerns, make them about the impact that you see to the business. You can’t make it an emotional appeal that sounds like sour grapes. Try to make the feedback balanced, and be ready to accept that your manager might just need to ruminate on it for a while. It might take several attempts, but the message will sink in. This doesn’t’ always mean that the scourge is eradicated, but you quite possibly will see some shifts in responsibilities over time that will neutralize the negative impact. 

As difficult as these conversations are, in the grand scheme of things, you will be doing your manager a favor.

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