You know them. Their work is barely a passing grade, yet they act as if they're the Lebron James of the business court.

These are members of the Incompetence Crew, the workers who genuinely can't see they lack specific skills. They suffer from a well-documented phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, which basically says you have to have a given skill to assess for yourself whether you're good at that skill or not.  

But the thing about incompetent people is, they often do have an enormous capacity to learn and to gain the skills they lack over time. They are not, by any means, stupid. They are perhaps better described as simply not experienced enough yet to understand. If that weren't true, no newbie ever would rise to the level of CEO.

The trick, as psychologist David Feldman asserts for Psychology Today, is that you have to give incompetent people plenty of guidance and feedback to help them realize where they actually stand. And you must do so in a way that doesn't make them defensive.

1. Suggest what others (including you) have done with success.

This helps the incompetent person feel like you're merely offering a different route, rather than finding fault with the method they initially went with. Give a detailed explanation of why the alternate routes worked.

2. Be specific about where their work stopped making sense to you.

This opens a conversation about what they were thinking or trying to achieve. It also provides an opportunity for you to explain your own thought processes and to make clarifications.

3. Test often and with a wide variety of metrics (including ones from third parties).

This eliminates the ability for the individual to say they simply had an off day, that you're biased, or that the tools you're measuring with don't work. It also enables you to regularly highlight and praise the incremental improvements in their performance.

4. Treat needed training, conferences, etc., as opportunities.

For example, say something like, "I'd love to have you sign up for Webinar X next week--it's a great chance for you to improve on Skill Y." This way, the event feels like a recommendation you're excited about for them. At the same time, you avoid making any judgmental statements about what you personally think of their current level.

5. Give a positive why.

Clarify the reason for the feedback in the first place, such as "I want you to be able to lead your own team next year." This helps the person getting the feedback stay motivated and know you really do have their best interests in mind.

6. Say the goal, not the deficiency.

For instance, instead of saying something like "You're a full 20 points below where we want you to be," say "What I would like to see you do is bump this score up 20 points over the next four months. Let's talk about how we can get you there."

7. Use objective language.

Rather than saying something like, "You're holding the presentations back," try "I've noticed that Jane is having to wait for your reports." Then cooperatively dissect the root of the problematic behavior and make a plan with specific steps on how to move forward.

As you go through this checklist, remember it helps enormously to offer feedback in private--there's zero operational benefit to parading incompetence, and the risk of the person getting defensive is higher if they think many others are going to judge them poorly. Be patient, and don't underestimate the influence of your willingness to be a great teacher.

Published on: Apr 24, 2019
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