Management Ducks

Ducks are subpar employees who contribute little to an organization's productivity. My recent column "IT Full of Ducks?" generated many responses from readers reporting ducks in management positions. Ducks are indeed found at all levels of an organization, but ducks in management (DIM) are the very worst kind.

DIMs can do big damage in the following ways:

Wasting time. Since they frequently aren't very bright, DIMs often want to revisit issues that others consider closed. Like Dilbert's boss, they have endless questions and call content-free meetings.

Squandering resources. Rather than attempting to do a few things well, DIMs often initiate numerous ill-conceived projects that consume significant financial and employee resources. This defocuses (and frustrates) the organization.

Decreasing effective communication. DIMs often alienate their peers, customers and suppliers, which can significantly damage communication (and cooperation) among organizations. In addition, they frequently blame the bearer of bad news, which can result in fewer problems being addressed.

Damaging your reputation. Employees and peers lose respect for managers who do not spot (and address) DIMs.

De-motivating people. Star employees perform best for people they respect; they hate working for DIMs. Stars always have employment options; many will choose to leave rather than work for a DIM. And it doesn't take employees long to determine their manager's duck rating. (It took my daughter only two days to spot a fifth grade Teacher Duck.) Don't let DIMs drive stars out of your organization!

Unfortunately, it is often difficult for senior management to identify DIMs. It can be problematic to determine whether management objectives have actually been met, since many objectives lack explicit metrics. Moreover, management objectives are frequently subjective, making it hard to meet the often strict HR criteria for firing employees.

And there are additional obstacles, like these:

  • Busy executives often don't have (or don't take) the time to clearly understand each subordinate manager's performance. If a DIM works in a separate location and "manages up" well, it can take the executive some time to spot him. This is especially difficult in matrixed organizations.
  • Managers are expected to be able to operate independently, against broad objectives. As a result, many executives have limited day-to-day contact with subordinates, letting DIMs fly under the radar.
  • Many performance management systems are ineffective, valuing timeliness of submissions rather than thorough investigation and evaluation of performance.
  • Senior executives are sometimes reluctant to shoot subordinate management ducks, because it would take too much time and effort to hire a replacement. HR often requires painful levels of scrutiny and consensus when filling highly compensated management positions.

A comprehensive performance evaluation process provides an effective way to locate ducks. A 360-degree review process combines feedback from an employee's peers, subordinates and manager(s). Some organizations include input from customers, acknowledged stars and other stakeholders. For information on 360-degree reviews, see Wikipedia and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management ( If you can't get rid of DIMs easily, assign them performance objectives they are unlikely to meet. (Most DIMs can't tell the difference.)

It's critical to identify, eliminate and replace DIMs before they do irreparable damage. Corporate downsizing and outsourcing efforts have placed many good managers back on the market (negating the assumption that unemployed managers are ducks). Don't tolerate ducks at any level, especially in management. Search for competent replacements ASAP. Meanwhile, develop internal support for shooting your management ducks. Use a 360-degree review to get your gun into position, then take aim, and fire!

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at

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