Recognising incompetence

Have you ever met someone so wildly incompetent that their mere presence just sinks entire projects, stalls workflows, and absolutely baffles your mind as to how they could live, breathe, and operate in a complex world?

While that was mostly a rhetorical question, I suppose the follow-up question would be: Do such people even know of their incompetency even as they wear a shroud of denial and absolute bliss and dream of Dunning-Kruger every so often?

It is quite the sight to observe social spaces go dead when such people present their visage. You know what I’m talking about–chatty workmates clam up in the presence of said individual(s) as they emanate tendrils that snake their way into every corner of the office and tank an organisation’s productivity to new lows never before seen.

I sometimes think that I am that person. But wait, if I can recognise my own incompetence, then surely I am not incompetent–at least not to world ending levels. Ah hah! That must certainly be a loophole.

How would you deal with incompetent people who slip past the hiring mechanisms so designed to catch incompetence? How would you deal with incompetence in yourself and others? Though it is nearly the end of December 2021, this question bugs me to no end. If there is an Oracle, I hope that it appears in my dreams and gives me The Answer.


  1. Practical Actions:

    Expectations – Assuming that you’re referring to incompetency at the workplace.. Has said person studied and acknowledged their responsibilities written in the JD? Are they clear about what’s expected of them? Emanating negativity and toxicity does affect team work. “Be a team player” is often a phrase written in JDs and perhaps the most important. Unfortunately most hirers would call it “soft skills” when it’s actually an essential skill. With clarity on how said person falls short of expectations according to the JD, you may bring it up to HR or speak to said person directly.

    Inward Gazing:
    Consistency – Our judgement of others is often a projection of our own expectations of self. Is your judgement of said incompetent person consistent with self? If yes, are you fair to yourself and therefore fair to the person? There’s a thin line between self-loathing and self-criticism. Ensure that it’s the latter.

    Empathy – It’s not personal. Perhaps said person is at wrong place, wrong time. Perhaps there’s something going on in their lives we’re not privy to. Perhaps they’re at a phase of their career life where they have misaligned expectations of what work is. Nonetheless, at the workplace, the machinery still needs to function well in a capitalist world which not everyone is prepared for. It’s expected that for yourself, allow this thought to pass through your mind and remember to be kind and honest to yourself.

    1. Introspection ranks up there as a key skill, I reckon. I hear stories and anecdotes of incompetent colleagues at the workplace and it does my brain in. Sometimes, having no one is better than hiring the wrong one. This, I suspect, plays out in organisations everywhere. I can only imagine the time and resources lost in repairing the intangible damage and recouping the losses incurred by shaky hands.

      Thanks for raising the point between self-loathing and self-criticism. I agree that it is _indeed_ a thin line separating the two. Also, I do believe that the wrong people can actually be at the wrong place regardless of time. So, a large part of my work, being in management for me now, seems to be coming up with mechanisms that better detect competencies and crafting out the procedures to eliminate the unqualified who somehow slipped through HR.

      On inward gazing: I introspect and certainly hope that I don’t pull workplace morale down. I avoid conflict. But, I’ve ultimately (and finally) accepted that I must do the uncomfortable yet necessary actions to raise service standards as required of job roles. Sometimes, we must hurt one if doing so means that the community benefits.

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