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Dec 1, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Incompetence is contagious within companies — and it spreads like wildfire.

Incompetence can originate from anywhere, but mediocre managers are like matches for lighting a veritable forest fire of incompetency inside the organization. They create a ceiling that can stunt the growth of your organization, and everyone in it.

This idea is not new. It’s a real-life example of “The Law of Crappy People,” a phenomenon coined by Ben Horowitz, venture capitalist and author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers.

The idea is simple, but its impact on the business is complex.

Setting the bar low

The law states, “For any title level in a large organization, the talent on that level will eventually converge to the crappiest person with the title.” Say George is your “worst” vice president; he becomes the bar. Leaders under George benchmark themselves against his poor performance, expecting (and likely demanding) promotions as soon as they reach that level.

This thwarts talent. This thwarts your company’s growth. This sets the bar low.

There are plenty of arguments, including that of Horowitz himself, suggesting that the remedy to the occurrence is a carefully crafted promotion process (similar to dojos in karate). While that is crucial, I’d argue that there are a few additional ways an organization can cut the “crap,” and each of them starts at the top.

First, cut the crap and recruit confident managers

Every company intends to get hiring right from the get-go, but that’s easier in theory than in practice. The first thing an HR manager should look into is creating a strategy for ensuring a company is hiring self-assured individuals for the most crucial, bar-setting positions in your organization: management.

At Instructure, we’ve seen that one of the most important qualities a manager can have is confidence in herself and her value to the company. This inherent self-assurance is especially crucial when it comes to managers with hiring responsibilities, because those who aren’t sure of themselves can feel threatened by new prospects.

It’s typical for phrases like “go-getter,” “ambitious self-starter,” and “rock star ready to make a difference” to pepper a job listing. These are aspirational clichés, but when someone embodying these qualifications is sitting across the interview table, an insecure manager sees someone who might be better at his job than he/she is.

They’re afraid that hiring someone smarter — or what they perceive as “better” — than them will mean they are eventually outplayed and outpaced. This is especially common in first-time managers. In an interview with The New York Times, Zillow’s chief executive Spencer Rascoff said the biggest mistake he saw from junior managers was not hiring people who are better than them. He said:

It might be subconscious — people don’t want to be shown up by one of their direct reports — or maybe they don’t know how to identify talent.”

Such insecurities eventually lead to subpar hires. Your company doesn’t nab the “go-getter” nor the “self-starter,” but instead, someone who strokes the ego (and solidifies the job security) of your existing manager.

And while your team member may walk away from recruitment feeling safe and secure, your company is, of course, anything but. They’re likely stacking your company’s teams with second-string players while the most promising stars are stuck warming the bench.

Make sure confidence is accompanied by competence

While the line between confidence and insecurity may seem thin, the former usually has a certain level of proficiency to back it up. Similarly, an arrogant person’s attitude will almost always be disproportionate to his or her actual skill set.

This is why, in order to ensure competence in management, it’s equally important to facilitate ways for them to gain specific skills so they can excel in their jobs.

Focus on hiring managers who are innately resourceful and confident, and then aim to shore up those qualities by providing learning opportunities that develop the skills and industry-specific knowledge they need to succeed. It’s impossible for managers to know everything when they start a new job, and it’s essential that companies offer learning resources to fill in the gaps.

Managers who have the right tools and knowledge to succeed will have the necessary confidence to form a strong foundation for the rest of the business — because they will be sure enough in their own abilities to select someone who’s even smarter or more skilled than they are.

These sure-footed managers not only set the bar higher for existing employees with their own competence — they do it without an ego. They’re willing to hire people perceived as “better” than they are because they foster growth and make everyone’s job easier.

Remember, a good boss is a “crap-smith”

In addition to prioritizing the self-assured and proficient, look for a manager who is also willing to bite the bullet. This means they are able to have hard conversations, and they are willing and able to address performance problems for the well being of the entire organization (including firing when necessary).

Above all, these individuals understand that being a high-performing manager involves strategic skill. While their teams are in the trenches, they’re managing the battle from a higher vantage point. This means they have to make sure employees can do their jobs effectively, and that nothing gets in the way of that. They’re “crap-smiths,” shoveling refuse aside to make sure nothing and no one comes between employees and results — including themselves.

Your company must — must! — have the crap-smith, and not the crappy boss.

It’s the mediocre manager who can poison your company from top to bottom, whether it’s lowering expectations of existing employees or deflecting good talent from entering your organization to begin with. While you need competent, confident managers to be solid strategists for their teams, your company needs to be strategic when recruiting them, too.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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