When you’re in over your head.

I’ve learned that when employees “get in over their heads”, they rarely, if ever, say anything. What this means is that an employee’s job duties are changed to the point where additional expertise and/or a more broad skill set is required to fulfill the tasks the business needs this individual to perform. “Getting in over your head” means that you were hired for one set of duties and a commensurate skill set, but over time, that set of duties and the required skill set have grown to the point where the individual can no longer perform the job required by the business. Similar to a frog slowly cooking in the frying pan, neither you – the business owner – or your employee will easily discern that the employee is no longer a good match for the position. Instead, you’ll experience this phenomena as a series of small, frustrating disappointments with interweaving successes because the employee is able to perform parts of his/her job (the old parts) while covering up their inability to perform the emerging or new tasks in their job. Usually, however, the employee will be able to cover this up only for so long and then the proverbial !@#$ will hit the fan and you’ll have an immediate problem to manage – a crisis if the individual is in a key position.

By way of illustration, we’ve recently been engaged by the Canadian government on a tax/legal matter. While the details of the matter are unimportant to this post, what is germane is our inability to find key documents from transactions over 5 years ago. You see, we didn’t have a good filing system back then. The individuals’ responsible for keeping track of our records, frankly, didn’t make it a priority. Instead, they dumped key records into boxes and stashed the boxes away thinking the records would never be needed. Worse yet, in talking with some current staff now, we know that some records were thrown out for reasons that escape sane logic.

The folks responsible are no longer here. Their employment with us was terminated a long time ago. They are *good* people. Well-meaning people. But they were in over their heads – they didn’t know how to organize records in a company and didn’t raise their hand to ask for help. Worse yet, they didn’t see the importance of paying attention to an infrastructure that would support a growing business. In the case of the tax issue with the Canadian government, there were *plenty* of notices that went ignored. Why there were ignored, again, escapes logic. These individuals are Christians – which makes it all the more difficult to swallow. When you’re in over your head and you don’t say anything, that’s a form of lying. You are misleading people around you as to your true levels of competence. You hide your mistakes and use creative reasoning to justify poor performance. You’ll be able to fool some or even all for a period of time, but eventually, it will come home to roost.

While it takes courage to admit to your managers that you’re in over your head, it is also the thing to do from an integrity standpoint. You can approach it by asking for direction, training to gain the additional skills and/or a willingness to be mentored. But don’t give your managers the impression you can handle it when you clearly cannot. You’re just setting yourself up for unnecessary stress, a violation of your integrity and an eventual termination which will hurt you more than you can imagine.

Now, some reading this are thinking that if they tell their managers the truth, they may be fired. That is always a possibility. But I would rather lose my job and hold onto my integrity than sacrifice the latter for a paycheck. It’s your call, clearly.

I’ve also learned, as a manager, that I don’t get any better work out of my Christian brothers and sisters than I do from those outside my faith. This post is just one example. In my ivory-tower world, I’d like to think that Christians give better service simply because of the commands in Scripture to do just that. But unfortunately, my experience has not born this out to be true.

Certainly, the finger could be pointed at me. Ultimately, I didn’t manage these individuals well. I plead guilty. Ultimately, their mistakes are mine. To a point, this is true. Had I demanded of them better performance, perhaps I would have received it. Still, each individual is responsible for their own performance even if their manager is deficient in some way. You can’t always “pass the buck” to someone higher up.

So, if you’re a business owner or a manager of people, what should you be on the look-out for? What will clue you in that an employee might be in over their heads? Here are some tips:

  1. If you ask for a status update or a progress report and certain, key elements are missing, this is an indication that they are withholding poor performance information
  2. If you go into their office and find it to be a perpetual mess – this is an indication that they don’t know how to manage all of their information
  3. If you look at their inbox and find they have 10K+ emails, this is an indication that they don’t know how to manage their work day or their tasks
  4. If they tell you “I’ve got it covered – don’t worry about it” – then that is the time to SERIOUSLY worry
  5. If they get irritated with you when you ask about details of their work habits – then you know they are trying to cover up something
  6. If they keep telling you they will have “it” to you soon, but they never get around to fulfilling their promise – then they are probably trying to put you off
  7. If they agree with you in a meeting but then go out and do something different or in opposition to your agreement – they may not have the skills to do what you’ve asked them to do

These are just some of the indications that an employee is in over their head. Try to work with them as best you can, but in the end, don’t be afraid to terminate their employment. Hanging onto people who can’t do the job demanded by the business only hurts your business and may put you in the poor house.

Bill English, CEO


2 thoughts on “When you’re in over your head.”

  1. One thing I’ve learned – the mistakes of past employees can come back to haunt you for years to come. Hiring incompetence is very, very costly.

  2. Bill,
    Loved the article and, unfortunately, resonate with the truth in it. I recently had to let an employee go who had fulfilled the “Peter Principle” by rising to the highest level of his incompetence. Not fun but necessary. The ministry is now the better for it.

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