When Ignorance Isn't Bliss

What do you do with an employee who is incompetent but can't see it?

At first, Elizabeth McRae Smith, 37, couldn't put two and two together. But soon she suspected the truth: One of her employees was hopelessly incompetent.

A pattern of typos and bad grammar was hurting Smith's business. "This person had incompetence in a number of areas that are important to public relations and even caused some problems with clients that I had to fix," says Smith, founder and CEO of The McRae Agency, a PR firm with six employees.

"You just can't save some employees from themselves. Entrepreneurs can work too long trying to fix things."

She found that gentle reminders didn't work, so she started amassing a paper trail of the employee's mistake-laden projects, e-mails and reports. Last summer, one year after the employee was hired on at the 6-year-old San Francisco firm, she decided on a performance review where she and another supervisor would individually rank the employee on a number of skill sets, while the employee would rate herself. Smith was dumbfounded when the two sides compared notes. She and the supervisor thought that improvement was needed in every category, but the employee rated herself as good or excellent in every category.

Chances are, you'll eventually have employees who rate themselves as "above average" in a wide array of abilities they clearly don't have. Maybe it's an employee who thinks she's an outstanding public speaker but isn't, a secretary who fancies himself a writer but puts out horribly disjointed memos, or a sales rep who greatly overestimates her ability to close big deals.

But here's the rub: What you see as a glaring deficiency, these employees view as a strong competency. Smith's employee saw herself as supremely qualified-if not destined-for a career in PR, but Smith saw a gaping set of obstacles the worker could not seem to grasp.

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Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the July 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: When Ignorance Isn't Bliss.

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