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Recognizing and Avoiding the Sinking Ship and Its Captain: Incompetence in Project Management Leadership

written by: Sylvia Cochran • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 2/4/2014

Project management is a well-defined field with training opportunities for those in leadership positions. Still, favoritism, temper tantrums and incompetence mar the performance of teams -- in spite of the available training. Adding insult to injury, this ineptness may cost team members a promotion.

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    The Good, the Bad and the Incompetent

    Dealing with Incompetent Leaders on Project Management Teams Good communication abilities, a leadership style that is appropriate to the group makeup of the team and also a clear vision of a project’s end result are indispensable traits of a good leader. For the adequate -- but perhaps less than great -- person in charge, it is sufficient to maintain a functional delegation cycle and stay on top of follow-up and the follow-through on benchmark evaluations.

    Unfortunately, there are plenty of ill-trained, inept and ham-fisted supervisors put into project management. They are in over their heads or oblivious to shortcomings. A case in point is CNBC’s list of the worst American CEOs. The unflattering collection of industry leaders reads like a who’s who of business failures, costly mistakes and corporate incompetence that cost workers their jobs.

    • The authors identify Citi with an incoming CEO, who was ill-equipped to deal with a sinking finance giant. Incapable of turning the credit company around, the taxpayers had to issue a bailout.
    • Carly Fiorina not only had political ambitions in California, but she also enjoyed a role as a speaker who would teach other business professionals how to run successful companies. Unwilling to let go of bonuses and perks at the upper management level, cost-cutting took the form of employee layoffs.
    • The authors of the collection identified Bob Nardelli as also being unwilling to cut personal perks. He is said to have alienated those on whom he relied for executive leadership, which is a surefire way of not getting work done.

    Other examples of inexperience, lack of caring or simply incompetence highlight CEOs who fail to act when necessary, refuse to share in cost-cutting at the highest level, are out of their element with respect to the niche they enter, tolerate discord among team leads and misinterpret market direction. While chief operating officers are the ultimate project managers, their mistakes and failures can be seen across the business landscape in today’s corporations.

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    Four Tell-Tale Traits of Incompetence

    Are you part of a project team that is likely to go belly-up? Adding insult to injury, does the stink of failure seem to cling to anything the project manager touches? If possible, avoid team assignments that put you under the leadership of supervisors with four disastrous personality traits.

    1. Disorganization. Does the project manager arrive habitually late and frequently forget to bring crucial materials to project discussions? Do team members have to resubmit items because first drafts got lost or misplaced? Personal organization is a must for a successful project outcome and should be considered one of the top project leadership requirements.

    Team members who work for a disorganized team lead frequently find that they are held responsible for mistakes and missed deadlines. The result is a professional black eye that might just cost them the promotion they have worked for. Sure, plenty of team members try to make up for the leader’s lack of organization, but this does little to benefit them and only keeps the incompetent supervisor in the position of leadership.

    2. Sexism. This can go both ways, and it is equally a problem with a "boy's club" not wanting female influence, as there is with a female supervisor refusing to work with a qualified male team member.

    3. Racism. Whether it is affirmative action hiring or simply the natural racial segmentation of the workplace based on location, the group in the minority can feel repressed. The majority group may be clueless to these feelings. A project manager who represents a racial minority -- based on numbers in the workplace, not governmental identification of national minority groups -- can easily feel threatened by the "others." A leader’s distrust quickly alters the way she or he treats team members, which generates feelings of rejection in team members. Although not specifically discussing racial tensions, the authors of “Project Leadership" identity this type of behavior as “using ‘power over’ rather than ‘power with’" team members.

    4. Cronyism. Placing friends or like-minded professionals at the head of a leadership team is a dangerous proposition. Not only does it lead to discontent among peers who are excluded from a perceived inner circle, but it also leads to incompetent workers being placed into positions for which they lack aptitude. Resentment within the team results in disunity; peers outside of the inner circle protect personal achievements to prevent cronies from receiving credit.

    On the flip side, due to the influence the cronies exercise with the project managers, even good ideas by others may be discounted to implement less workable solutions. A Santa Clara University discussion on ethics highlights this possibility. While the entire project or team may sink, the project manager usually protects the cronies against consequences. Cronyism can give way to extremely poor treatment of peers; cronies understand their protected status and do not worry about soft skills. Lashing out at team members, lying, cheating and even avoiding assigned work by dumping it on peers are common.

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    Working for an incompetent or prejudiced project manager is problematic for professionals of all ranks. That said, it is unfortunate that the employee further removed from the top of the business hierarchy frequently suffers more ill effects than the worker who is closer to the executive level. Avoiding an inept team leader is pivotal to future upward mobility, although it is frequently difficult to choose the teams in which to participate.