Most of us dread having to work with people who lack the skill, ability and motivation to do the right thing, the right way, for the right reason. These people walk around in a fog unaware of the negative impact they are having on others. They continue to make costly mistakes and don’t seem to care.

What can you do?

This article is a list of strategies for dealing with people who show signs of incompetence and suggestions for how to work with them in order to achieve your goals. It’s based on a competency index (CI), which can help you gauge how deeply ingrained someone’s behavior might be. The CI, which has five levels, can enable you to determine which abilities people are missing and which you will need to bring to the relationship in order to make it work.

As you study the situations and strategies listed below, keep in mind that these people are not bad people; they just behave in an incompetent manner under certain conditions and circumstances.

Level 1: Doesn’t Get It and Probably Never Will

The Situation

Ed, the head of the marketing team, is not providing the information your team needs to do its job effectively. He doesn’t respond to your emails or text messages, and his comments at meetings indicate his limited understanding of his obligations. He decides on a course of action without consulting you, which is why he is often wrong. This behavior is impacting your performance.

The Strategy

Ed sees no reason to seek information from outside sources, so before you can change Ed’s mind, you must open it. Here are some steps that may help:

    • Arrange a mutually convenient discussion over lunch or after hours. Meeting in his office gives him control, so your best bet is to select a neutral site off campus.
    • Ask him for his help in resolving a specific problem. Provide an example of what he can do to involve himself more with you and your staff.
    • Present the situation as factually and unemotionally as possible. Do not speculate on how others may feel or on what he needs to do.
    • Avoid any direct criticism or suggestion that he needs help, which will be counterproductive.
    • If he challenges your assessment of the situation, do not waste your time arguing. Clarify that there will be consequences if he continues to behave in this manner.

Level 2: Might Get It if There Is a Personal Benefit

The Situation

Travis seldom has an idea of his own, so he borrows them from others — you, in particular. You are frustrated, because he rarely has anything substantive to say, but the higher-ups are swayed by his charismatic personality and his ability to charm the big-name clients. Recently, Travis persuaded the leadership team to create a customer relations task force that he has asked you to chair.

The Strategy

Think about the benefits of convincing Travis that he needs to change his behavior if he expects to rise any higher in the company. Sharing those benefits with him should catch his attention. Before you make your case with Travis, however, you will need to prepare several alternative strategies:

    • Giving him a “take-it-or-leave-it” choice is not a good idea. Providing him with a list of options will help him accept what you say without admitting that he is wrong.
    • Rather than challenge him alone, bring others with you who support your position. It helps if he holds those people in high regard or has worked with them successfully in the past.
    • An alternative to the collective approach is to have each of your supporters approach him independently with the same message.
    • Put any verbal agreements or commitments he makes in writing, using his exact words. Otherwise, he may deny ever having agreed with what you proposed.
    • Provide testimonials from people he sees as important or prominent. Relevant quotations from public figures and notable personalities whom he admires will help your case.

Level 3: Gets It After Being “Hit Over the Head” With It

The Situation

Your company is losing clients, and you believe the problem originates with Carla, the chief executive officer. She is fully immersed in negotiating with investors and bankers, but she ignores the personnel side of the business. As a result, there is no one with authority to oversee day-to-day activities and respond to customer complaints. Individual department managers are left to their own devices.

The Strategy

Carla is smart and ambitious, so it is worth trying to reason with her. However, you first have to catch her attention. Here are some steps you can take to share your frustrations:

    • Ask to meet with her in person. Tell her it is important enough that you are willing to come to her office.
    • Present her with a list of your concerns. Tell her that your colleagues and co-workers have voiced similar concerns.
    • Emphasize that if the situation continues, managers will resign and the firm may suffer. If you are prepared to do so, offer to resign if there is no change.
    • Share your solution, which is to hire an experienced executive to serve as chief operating officer. Share examples of how this approach has worked at other companies.
    • Suggest that by delegating the responsibility for operations, Carla would be free to do what she does best, which is to attract new investors and raise additional capital.

Level 4: Occasionally Gets It but Needs Reminding

The Situation

Her uncle’s position on the board made it possible for Polly, a recent graduate, to be hired as an intern. Polly advanced rapidly and was recently elevated to a supervisor role. She is now faced with a situation where the people reporting to her, including you, have more experience than she does. Polly is unaware that her rapid promotion is creating resentment and a lack of trust.

The Strategy

Polly has tried to make it on her own merits but often falls back on using her connection with her uncle whenever she encounters resistance from her staff and co-workers. Here are some tips you can use to work with her:

    • Provide a supportive setting for your first attempt to voice your concerns. It is best to meet in a place that Polly is familiar with, where she feels comfortable.
    • Keep the conversation friendly by sharing a personal experience that relates to what you wish to discuss. Resist the temptation to provide a solution at this point.
    • Learn about her feelings before sharing yours, and let her responses be your guide for making your point. Accept her assessment, even if you disagree, before laying out your concerns.
    • Share how others feel about the situation and then your personal feelings and intentions. Lastly, tell her what you would like her to change in the future.
    • If she is receptive to altering her behaviors, make a suggestion for how she could handle her situation differently. Write a summary of the discussion, and send it to her promptly.

Level 5: Finally Gets It, but It Took a Lot of Time

The Situation

Will, your new department head, stays in his office most of the time. When you try to make an appointment, you’re told that he is not available and will respond to you shortly — but “shortly” never comes. You have evidence that Will is bypassing you by contacting your direct reports for information and then taking actions that undercut your authority.

The Strategy

You are dealing with a person who does not understand what you expect of him. Persistence, rather than persuasion, will result in a much higher payoff. Here’s how:

    • Provide a balanced argument both for and against the actions you feel he should take. Include a list of the possible consequences if nothing changes.
    • Allow him ample opportunity to develop his own solutions and time to experiment with new behaviors. Offer to serve as a monitor to provide frequent feedback.
    • You can assume he will want to verify your perceptions, so be accurate and realistic. Do not overstate the issues or report anything that you have not witnessed firsthand.
    • If Will disagrees with what you report, make an organized presentation of your position, and ask for his perspective on each point.
    • Submit a timetable for the changes he has agreed to make, and assure him that you will report back to him with the results so there will not be any misunderstandings.

Knowing how to use this competency index and to apply these strategies should make it easier for you to identify which competencies a particular person is missing. Then, you’ll be in a position to assist him or her to develop those skills and abilities most needed for the job.