We’ve all dealt with co-workers who are bad at their jobs, but very good at making their incompetence your problem—from the boss who over-promises, (only to expect you to do all of the work) to the co-worker who can’t quite do their job, (but is all too happy to pass their work off to you).
This habit of feigning incompetence at a task, so as to make it someone else’s responsibility, is called “weaponized incompetence,” and can show up at work in a number of different ways. Sometimes the co-worker may be genuinely incompetent; other times, they are capable of doing the work—they just don’t care to. Either way, their refusal or inability to do the work properly ends up becoming your problem as you are blamed for their failures or forced to take on work they will then take credit for.
How to recognize (and deal with) a boss’s weaponized incompetence
One major sign of weaponized incompetence in a boss is when they seem clueless about what it actually takes to finish a project. They might assume a particular a task takes 2 hours to complete, rather than the more realistic 12 hours. Or they don’t having a good sense of what their employee’s workload actually looks like.
For some bosses, this cluelessness may be genuine. For others, this incompetence is strategic, as they’ve learned they can make a whole bunch of big promises, the hard work of which will get passed off to their employees, who then have to scramble to get the job done, which the boss will get credit for pulling off, when in reality, they offered very little support.
“A lot of leaders get this way because organizations encourage this and reward it,” said Tessa West, a social psychologist at NYU and author of the book Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them.
This then turns into a self-repeating cycle, where the incompetent boss will make promises, force their employees to carry it out without offering much support, and then reap the rewards of their accomplishments, counting on the fact that they’ll be promoted into a different group before higher-ups realize just how little they did.
“The higher and more powerful someone is, the easier it is for them to get away with not doing what they should, often because they don’t want to do it and know that they can get away with it,” said Daphne Jones, a breakthrough career coach and author of the book Win When They Say You Won’t.
There is strength in numbers when dealing with a boss like this: “Their kryptonite is having their targets discover each other,” West said. If people can get together and show a pattern of incompetence, it’s easier to show upper management what is really going on, and how it is affecting productivity. “Widespread problems are scarier to a boss than one-off conflicts between two people,” West said.
How to recognize (and deal with) a co-worker’s weaponized incompetence
Similarly, if a co-worker can’t (or won’t) carry out a number of tasks that would be expected of them, given their position, that is a red flag. “In certain positions, people are expected to have certain broad or specific capabilities and competencies,” Jones said. “If you have them, your coworker likely should, too.”
If they don’t have these skills, they could either be in an ill-fitting role or their incompetence could be their way of passing off these responsibilities to others. When it comes to dealing with co-workers like these, Jones recommends assuming good intentions, but to try and find a way to address the situation, either with your co-worker or with your boss. “It starts with good communication,” she said.
If your relationship with the co-worker is good, you can try asking them if they are aware of any blind spots they might have. If not, it can help to bring up your contributions with your boss, as a way of ensuring that you are receiving proper acknowledgment for your work. “Let [your boss] know in a matter-of-fact way, not as a complaint, of the status of your project achievements and also how you assisted the other person who has deployed weaponized incompetence,” Jones said.
Incompetence means different things to different people, but generally it denotes the inability to do a job to a satisfactory standard. If an employee completes a task on time, without errors and the way he was asked to do the work, the employee is considered competent. If the final product goes beyond what was asked of the employee, the employee is more than competent. Signs of an incompetent employee include work being submitted late, over budget, with errors or requiring considerable help from others.
A common cause of incompetence is laziness, which can lead to errors, lateness and other problems. Not double checking your work is an example of incompetence, since anyone can do that. If you include typos in written communication, these can lead to making your company look unprofessional or can cause other departments to make mistakes. Not bothering to check the status of a project you are managing or not asking for commitments in writing are other examples of sloppiness and carelessness, since you can easily do these.
Just because you give someone instructions doesn’t mean you’ve done your job, says India Employer Forum. Signs of an incompetent manager include a trail of incompetent employees. A competent employee asks coworkers or clients if they received the message, if they understand it and if they can meet the request.
Waiting until deadline to learn that a project won’t be delivered is another form of incompetence – you should check in with key stakeholders during the course of a project to evaluate its status. If you are not able to properly and clearly communicate your thoughts or your superiors’ instructions to others, leading to problems at work, you are not competent to work with others, no matter how good your intentions.
Lack of People Skills
Companies need to attract and retain customers and employees to stay in business. Examples of incompetence at work due to a lack of people skills include being tactless, overbearing, rude, unclear, upset or not inspiring confidence in the people with whom you work. Driving away a key employee because you only point out his faults and never praise him is an example of managerial incompetence. Trying to acquire a potential customer by telling her she is doing something wrong and making her feel stupid is another example of incompetence.
Lack of Training
Through no fault of your own, you may be given a task for which you have no training or experience. For example, an excellent salesperson can be promoted to a sales manager position, coordinating the activities of the sales department. If that person has no experience creating departmental budgets, setting sales goals, determining prices based on a company’s costs and the market demand and supply, designing commission plans, developing sales materials and otherwise operating as a manager, he could fail. According to Russell HR Consulting, training is one of the main causes of incompetence in the workplace.
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