5 Considerations to Understand and Address Incompetent Coworkers
What’s got your work world spinning on its axis? Incompetent coworkers can contribute to stress that poses numerous threats against personal health and well-being. Whether they’re taking credit for your ideas or forcing you to do their work, an individual’s actions at work can prove overwhelming for both your to-do list and psyche.
Here’s how to recognize three different types of coworker incompetence. Then you can tailor your approach to improving the gap and restore peace and success to your work days.
1. Determine the degree and type of incompetence
By definition, incompetence is the inability to do something successfully. But before you can decide how to address the situation with your incompetent coworker, you first have to determine why the disconnect in doing their job exists. It’s typically found along three fault lines.
‘The Peter Principle’
Your hypothetical colleague Diane was recently promoted to account director and doesn’t understand how to do a foundational element of her new role: managing account executives. Could she have fallen victim to the Peter Principle? According to Investopedia, “The Peter Principle is an observation that the tendency… is for every employee to rise in the hierarchy through promotion until they reach a level of respective incompetence.”
In Diane’s case, she moved up the ranks into the account director role as reward for doing a continually great job in her previous positions. However, managing people is a new responsibility for her. She wasn’t given any management training or tools, so she’s no longer able to demonstrate complete competence. That negatively impacts Diane’s current success and potential progression. Plus, the company and her direct reports could also suffer.
In an interview with theSkimm, Nadine Shaanta Murshid, associate professor of social work and associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Buffalo, defined this incompetent coworker concept as a pattern of “someone [doing] something badly on purpose or [claiming] they don’t know how to do something so that the burden falls on someone else.”
HR Digest details some common causes behind this toxic practice. Gender stereotypes might be to blame if, for example, female employees rather than male ones are always asked to clean up after a meeting, since cleaning has been traditionally viewed as falling under a female’s purview.
Weaponized incompetence could also be a case of someone lording their authority over you. Now that Diane’s an account director, she may ask more junior staff members to pitch in on work she considers beneath her, such as writing a creative brief, even though that task is still in her job description. Or perhaps Diane asks another account director to handle the creative brief writing, since they’re so good at it that Diane couldn’t possibly do it justice. Diane then might take credit for the good work of her colleague or junior staff members, who might fear repercussions if they correct her.
This type of incompetence is a strategic move. So if you hear a colleague feign cluelessness on a task or utter the words “better than,” according to the HR Digest article, watch out! While the latter phrase may be delivered with a spoonful of sugar, it’s ultimately designed to pass the work on to anyone else but them.
A third leg to the ugly incompetent triangle is someone who is simply a poor performer in an aspect of their role. James, a Midwest social media manager (who requested his last name be removed for privacy), had a team member early in his career who was fantastic at the ideation part of the creative process, yet would continually forget key deadlines and important dates.
“He’d impress our team with his idea, and we knew from his previous work his writing style was great, too,” James says. “But we were always left scrambling to push out a social post or campaign because he’d be late getting us the copy, or he wouldn’t have gotten the necessary approvals in time.”
Whatever scenario you’re facing, having to bear both witness to and the brunt of incompetent coworkers can leave you feeling frustrated and lost.
“I got really tired of having to rush on my end because my coworker wouldn’t meet his deadlines,” James explains. “It caused a lot of unnecessary stress, and it also would really irritate me when my manager would talk about how great my coworker’s writing was. While that was true, it definitely wasn’t the full story.”
Here are a few tips for how to better the situation.
2. Set boundaries with incompetent coworkers, then approach human resources
“More times than not, the person might not actually be incompetent, but lazy or know that they can get away with doing the bare minimum,” says Candace Mitchell, an HR generalist with Zinpro Corporation.
And even though it’s a good practice to be helpful and collaborative, you can also set boundaries to help ensure a person’s lack of effort doesn’t consistently overburden your good nature. If your incompetent coworker is someone like Diane, communicate that while you’re happy to discuss her ideas and provide strategic guidance, ultimately the creation of the creative brief falls on her.
If you do have any confusion over whether or not a task is your responsibility, ask! Don’t only ask Diane—she’ll likely claim it is, then take credit for it anyway.
In the case of Diane making junior staff members write creative briefs and then robbing them of their credit, that power imbalance makes this a delicate situation to navigate. But there’s also power in numbers (multiple staff members impacted), as well as documentation. See if you can compile both, and then approach human resources if the situation keeps occurring.
3. Mentor, coach and provide feedback for incompetent coworkers
Unlike employees who weaponize their incompetence in order to manipulate others, sometimes colleagues just need additional support to perform their role more successfully.
If the Diane in your world isn’t comfortable with creative briefs or management, perhaps there’s a class she can take, or a mentorship program she can enroll in that will arm her with the skills she needs to lead others.
If you are the leader to a Diane, consider getting feedback from those she regularly interacts with to better understand what she does well and areas she needs to improve upon. Then you and Diane can discuss those findings together.
And if incompetent coworkers are an issue your firm faces frequently, don’t wait until a person is having problems and/or in a new role to remedy the situation. Offer continuing education and institute regular check-ins between managers and employees to catch problems early.
4. Communicate openly, yet also mitigate risks of incompetent coworkers
If the behavior of a certain individual is causing consternation, consider asking for their help in problem solving. Are they even aware of all the issues? And what might be done to address them? Do they need more training? Or do they believe a certain task would be a better fit for a coworker, hoping a manager can make an adjustment?
If, despite your feedback and discussion, the person is still falling short, think of an innovative way to structure your work together that will optimize success. James handled his incompetent coworker by assigning him deadlines that were actually in advance of when James really needed the deliverables.
“That way, when my coworker was late with his copy or getting things approved, I’d built enough days in so that we were still able to launch the campaign on time,” James says.
5. Hire well and manage appropriately
A certain onus falls on human resources and hiring managers to avoid recruiting incompetent people to the firm.
“There are behavioral-type questions we can ask in an interview to help determine how a person might interact with their peers, but it is not foolproof,” Mitchell says. “When going through the interview process with a candidate, something as small as how they treated the receptionist upon arrival can help determine if they will ‘play nice’ with others.”
And if the incompetent person slips through the cracks in the hiring process or already works at the company, not dealing with them effectively can put the employment of others at risk.
“It’s unfortunate when valued employees leave due to bad managers or incompetent colleagues, but because they are not privy to the steps being taken with that employee, they might feel like nothing is being done,” Mitchell explains. “If possible, you could move a valued employee to another team until the issue is resolved, but that is not always an option.”
So if you’re in a managerial role, do your best to keep your finger on the pulse of the team. Is everyone performing to the best of their ability and fulfilling the demands of their role? If not, how can you intervene and collaborate with the group to set boundaries, provide education or better communicate expectations?
The team can and should share the responsibility of shoring up competencies to reduce stress and bring success within reach again.
Photo by Rommel Canlas/Shutterstock
Jill McDonnell is a Chicago-based content writer and communications professional. She has a bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master's degree in public relations and advertising from DePaul University. She is currently at work on a psychological thriller novel.
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