Members suggest teamwork, sabotage, CYA measures in dealing with incompetent tech

When a support pro shared concerns about a coworker whose skills appear more social than technical, members responded with various suggestions. Should he talk to management, try to help him, try to sink him, or just let his incompetence catch up with him?

At the beginning of September, we presented a scenario in which a support tech was seeking guidance in dealing with an apparently incompetent coworker. Despite his technical ineptitude, the coworker has management completely hornswoggled. As always, TechRepublic members rose to the occasion, offering the beleaguered tech a plethora of creative advice, sympathy, and anecdotes. Of the many practical suggestions offered, most fell into one of two categories, depending on whether the member accepted the tech's evaluation of his situation or not. The members who were sympathetic with the tech were further subdivided into those who offered constructive suggestions for improving the situation and those who thought it was more appropriate to sabotage, embarrass, or otherwise run the "incompetent" off. A number of members actually suggested feeding the coworker bad information in the hopes that doing so would force management to notice his inadequacies and take appropriate action.

Practical strategies

Among the more constructive suggestions, members offered variations on the following:

  • Document, document, document. Encourage the whole support team to document every interaction with their coworker; this can then be used to either confront him directly or to present a substantiated case to management.
  • Don't take any action that involves the tech; instead focus on improving your own relationship with management.
  • Reorganize the support team to emphasize the tech's strengths (his ability to talk to people) and minimize his weaknesses (difficult technical problems). The whole team and the users will benefit.
  • Work with HR to define a strategy for resolving the problem. Clearly define expectations and core competencies for all team members. Establish a rehabilitation plan with goals to be met by a specific deadline.
  • Do everything you can to encourage his promotion. He displays distinct management potential; exploit this to expedite his removal from the support team.

Proceed with caution

Several members warned against taking any action that might alienate management. Locooper said, "Take serious note of this person because he probably has the skills that management wants. Communication skills are first, then analysis, and finally technical. Get on board. This is how it is evolving. The message that management is sending is clear. This person could be your supervisor next!" Taking the idea a step further, mohammedahmed1966 said, "This guy might be a new hire by the upper management for a change, transformation, or for a total turnaround to drive out the bad legacy software and processes." If, indeed, this is the case, any steps the support team takes to disaffect the tech could be detrimental to team's future.

Who's the bad guy, here?

More than a few members suggested that the real problem might lie with the complaining support tech rather than with the apparently incompetent coworker. Member cander expressed this view eloquently, casting the "incompetent" tech's failings in an entirely different light:

"What I'm reading is that this coworker:

  • Seeks out and listens to the concerns/needs/desires of the people who sign his paycheck.
  • Is able to solve basic technical problems.
  • When faced with more challenging issues, seeks out the advice of knowledgeable people on the team.
  • Practices active listening by mirroring back the solution to the person he gets it from, showing he understands.

He sounds like the type of professional I try to emulate and aspire to!"

No single answer

Other members related tales of similar situations from their careers, some having been in the position of the support tech and others the coworker. They all reported that achieving a satisfactory resolution of the situation generally required a multifaceted approach applied consistently over a period of some months.

What constituted a satisfactory resolution varied from case to case, of course. In some instances, "incompetent" techs were promoted, relocated, reassigned, or educated; in other situations, they resigned or were fired. Member Blue Giant related one such instance: "We had a similar situation here with a network admin. She was smart, personable, had the paper certifications, but couldn't apply anything in the real world.…We tried to bring her along using a lot of techniques mentioned here by others...coaching, counseling, etc.…In time her incompetence became apparent to upper management and she was smart enough to find another job before she got fired."

Effecting change

So what is the support tech actually going to do? We contacted him to ask what he thought of the various member suggestions and whether there was anything he could apply in his particular situation. He said, "All [the comments] provided me with the perspective to see the issue from different angles." And that includes the responses that laid the blame firmly at his door. The most accurate view of the problem, he said, was presented by member tech_republic: "Very few companies operate as a meritocracy. They are based on politics and manipulation of perception." Despite this rather gloomy summation of his situation, the tech is optimistic that the perspective gained from TechRepublic members will help him effect some positive change. If you have any insights to pass along, please feel free to post your suggestions to the discussion.

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