There was a man who purchased a penguin as a pet. On his first day home with the penguin, he picked it up and said to it, “Penguin, I have a great idea. I would like you to fly around the room three times and land on my shoulder. Let’s make it happen.”
The man gently threw the penguin into the air and it fell with a thud to the ground. He picked it up, brushed it off gingerly, kissed its head and said, “Penguin, perhaps you didn’t quite get what I said. I would like you to fly around the room three times and land on my shoulder. Let’s make it happen.”
The man threw the penguin into the air with a tad more vigor and, once again, it fell to the ground. The man grabbed it from the ground and, with barely concealed impatience, said, “Penguin, I don’t think you’re listening to me. Fly around the room three times and land on my shoulder. Okay, got it – three flights around and on the shoulder. Now, go!”
The man threw the penguin into the air with greater force than before and the penguin crashed to the ground with increased intensity. Unable to hide his agitation, the man yanked the penguin up while yelling, “Okay, what’s wrong with you? You’re a bird, right? Birds fly, right? You have wings, right. Now, start flapping those wings – three times around the room and on my shoulder. Come on, make it happen.”
And the man threw the penguin with Nolan Ryan-worthy speed and, once more, the penguin plummeted into the ground. Now, the story could either end with the penguin expiring from multiple broken bones or the man having a stroke from the aggravation of being unable to get his pet penguin to accomplish his wish.
However this tale ends, it is hardly the penguin’s fault – it never claimed it could fly. Instead, the fault lies solely with the man who viewed the penguin as being in possession of skills and talents it never had.
Now, let’s take this story and change it around. Instead of a pet owner and a penguin, how about a company’s manager and a worker? From my experience, there are too many people in corporate authority that insist on populating their workforces with employees who are the human equivalent of the poor penguin – they are not capable of doing their jobs, yet their employers refuse to acknowledge that painfully obvious fact.
Throughout the course of my career, I have found myself in companies surrounded by people who – to be perfectly rude – were utterly incompetent. Don’t get me wrong, they were all nice people, but they were all wrong for their jobs. And I could crash the Internet with anecdotes of how these poor souls created workplace catastrophes – everything from chronic plagiarism to disregarding intellectual property laws to walking out of the office during a deadline process to enjoy a summer afternoon at the beach to blowing up a coffee maker.
But despite the endless fumbling and bumbling of these people, their supervisors saw absolutely nothing wrong the chaos being created and kept them on staff, even promoting some of them to positions where their lack of abilities became even more apparent. It didn’t matter if other workers of the company had to drop their own jobs to patch up the disasters – these workers remained gainfully employed.
Why was this allowed to occur? In a few cases, there was a very obvious obsession by the supervisory employer with the inept employee that went several degrees beyond the tenets of mentorship. In other cases, the employer felt the less-than-sterling worker was the best they could find given the lack of money to hire competent qualified people.
Perhaps the basic root of this dilemma was vanity – no employer wants to admit they hired the wrong person for a job. And unless this wrong person does something that cannot be easily swept under the proverbial rug, the employer will make the best of a very bad situation until the problematic employee gets a job elsewhere or the corporate structure learns to work around the failings of this person.
In today’s business environment, competition is greater than ever and the last thing a company wants is a weak link in its chain of command. At the risk of being accused of taking Darwinism to a cruel extreme, employers need to stop and ask two questions: (1) Are there people on staff who really don’t belong here? And (2) why are they there?
It would be too easy to simply blame the employee for not being up to snuff – that’s like blaming the penguin in the aforementioned story for not being able to fly. If blame is bestowed, it needs to be on the managers or executives who are aware of the employee’s poor performance but cover up this problem with excuses or having others camouflage their shortcomings.
The writer Simon Sinek probably said it best: “We are not victims of our situation. We are architects of it.” If you’re in a leadership position, you need to surround yourself with the best team imaginable. When you start making excuses for having inferior team players, you will always be hobbled by an obstacle of your own creation.
Phil Hall is editor of WRE News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.