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Is a civilized and caring but otherwise incompetent person now also to blame for not being an asshole?

Failure by superiors/peers to address inadequate performance seems to be the problem here. This might be clearer if the person were an asshole too, but one can hardly blame him/her for that.

Parag Pandey

Leaders get the followers they deserve just as much as followers get the leaders they deserve. An incompetent but nice boss gets such followers and since they are followers he values them. To the detriment or annoyance of competent others.
My post on leadership - 'can we have some more that sauce please?'

Jason Telerski

Going through round after round of layoffs a couple years ago really highlighted for me that if I really care about the people who work for me, I need to build a sustainable organization that will allow good people to stay employed. In my organization, those managers who avoided or delayed making difficult decision about the size and composition of their groups because they didn't want to hurt anyone ultimately had to lay off more people and go through more rounds of layoffs. Those who were willing to make tougher decisions sooner were able to keep stronger teams, keep the members of their teams focused, and frankly treated those people they laid off with greater respect by being honest with them and not stringing out the process.

There are many ways to show your employees that you care about them. Making the difficult choices necessary to keep your people employed or help them to find their new place with less drama and uncertainty is an important and effective way to demonstrate just how seriously you are concerned about their well being. Being "incompetent" in these areas doesn't do anyone any favors.


There was a recent study that demonstrated that incompetent people do not think that they are incompetent. Thus it's unlikely that a boss would step down.

James Birchall

Hey Bob,

A former Navy SEAL did an IAMA on Reddit a little while back.

The telling question and answer:

Q: "What was the most dreaded thing in the field: bad intel, bad leadership, poor supplies or a certain type of gremlin?" - Mikul

A: "Bad leadership. Everything else can be compensated for. Bad leadership is the worst."


Vikas Kumar

'Lovable losers' as you put it, would be a small minority. When we categorise someone as good and caring we should also assume that the person has the fundamental skills and abilities needed for the position. If you are not manipulative how else can you rise without being qualified--certainly not for being 'nice' alone. It's most likely that the organization didn't invest in developing the person's emotional and leadership attributes as he/she got promoted to a leader.

Bob Sutton


Ugh. Well there are some crummy bosses who know they are crummy. But unfortunately, as Good Boss, Bad Boss shows, inept people are especially prone to be blind to their incompetence, so I am afraid you are probably right. In fact, if they let me, I will try to sneak in a sentence to that effect in copy editing phase. You are spot on thanks for pointing that out.

Rod Johnson

Bob, I might challenge you on one point in your conclusion, "I would add, however, that if you are a truly crummy boss – but care as much for others as they do for you -- stepping aside is the noble thing to do."

First, of course stepping aside is the noble thing to do for nasty and nice bosses alike. However, the percentage of crummy bosses that actually believe they're "crummy bosses" is miniscule, to possibly non-existent. So my challenge is, "Is this really a viable option?" It makes for nice prose, but probably an incorrect assumption that such bosses actually exist.


I think this is a problem at all levels. I certainly worked with colleagues who were incompetent, but so nice and caring that everyone made excuses and noone had the heart to discipline them. I am still untangling the messes left by one such colleague, two years later.

I agree with the commenter above who said that when people are not held accountable, this indicates systemic problems. This would include the "caring but incompetent" bosses. I imagine they can create just as much havoc as the incompetent regular employees.

Fascinating post. I think an advantage to working for a horrible, caring boss is that it gives the employee a chance to manage up. If you really like your boss, you'll be willing to help him/her out for the success of the company. Managing up can get your noticed by others in an organization.


I really agree that incompetency can create significant amounts of damage but isn't the responsibility of firing the nice but tragically terrible executive incumbant upon his superiors? Doesn't their failure to pull the trigger reflect poorly upon them? Certainly he should be driven to excellence but he isn't. I wonder in the scenario you've given if there aren't other systemic and cultural issues that his behavior is just the symptoms of.

Richard Platt

Bob, I agree with most of what you have said here. But I would add that sometimes being a boss requires an assessment of your people,(& yourself), as well as managers beneath you, on whether they are performing to a defined standard of excellence / performance.

When there is failure to have a standard and to hold everyone accountable to that standard you end up getting into a subjective analysis of people, instead a performance based one, or even a principle based method of evaluation.

I do admit to my own bias since I subscribe to both schools of thought on this.

Being liked by your peers, subordinates and your bosses is a nice thing to have, as you mention it can act as barrier to getting fired or at least have people give you the benefit of the doubt.

However, just like in the marketplace, we are really supposed to be measured by the results that we achieve, not on whether we are liked or not. Drucker said the same thing too, albeit differently than I have, his was to use MBO (Management By Objective).

Now I also subscribe to being hard on problems and soft on people, except when the people are the problem. 1st I seek to find out why the performance is not matching the standard and adjust as necessary taking those relevant aspects into consideration, and counsel them as such. But to be critically clear on this next point; in that constructive movement forward is a necessity by all if the business is to be and stay profitable.

If the individual in question is a liability to that profitability they need to be told so, and given the opportunity to self-correct.

If they don't self-correct, or are unwilling to do so, (assuming assistance is needed beyond a mere attitude adjustment), then the responsibility falls upon them in that they have abdicated their fiscal, moral and ethical responsibility to the organization for which they are paid a wage to do and to a professional standard. Thus providing the grounds for termination and/or punitive managerial action to correct the negative effect of the individual upon the organization's performance.

Does this seem like a unreasonable, or dare I say Asshole, response to you?

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