I’ve written in the past about how women – especially non-White women – are expected to do the office housework: Those administrative tasks that are important for the business to keep moving but that are undervalued and not likely to result in a promotion.
And last week I learned that office housework has an ally: Weaponised incompetence.
“Weaponised incompetence or “strategic incompetence” as it’s sometimes called ― is the act of faking incompetence at any one task (though usually an unpleasant one) to get out of doing it.”
- Your partner claims they are “not good” at household chores so you do them.
- Your family says that they are rubbish at planning, so you get stuck with organising family gatherings.
- Your roommate consistently does a poor job at cleaning the toilet so you step in and do it yourself.
But it’s also alive and well in the workplace.
How do you identify weaponised incompetence at the workplace?
By the task
They are typically mundane tasks or activities perceived as low-value – taking the minutes, planning office events, handling conflict among colleagues, or soothing unhappy customers.
By what they tell you
- You’re praised by how well you do the task, e.g. “You’re naturally good at taking notes during the meetings”.
- They make you responsible for their faked incompetence and delegate the task to you, e.g. ” Remember last time how bad it was when I did it? You’re so much better than me at this”.
- They say they don’t know how to do it, e.g. “It’s so difficult to update the Excel spreadsheet with the new leads”.
By what they do
- They do the task poorly.
- They constantly “forget” to do the task.
Some strategies to deal with weaponised incompetence
- Recognise you’ve been manipulated.
- Communicate the patterns you’ve noticed.
- Set boundaries AND STICK TO THEM.
- Leave them on their own to figure things out
- Coach them through doing the task themselves.
- Take the opportunity to start a discussion about how valuable is the task, who should be doing it, and how it should be rewarded.
Are you a “perpetrator” of weaponised incompetence?
It’s also important that women – and people belonging to other protected categories – check if we are using weaponised incompetence against other people. For example, as I mentioned above, non-White women are expected to do more office housework than White women.
We, White women, need to step up and help break the cycle rather than reinforce it.
The first step is awareness.
- Look at the low-value tasks you convince yourself “you’re not to be good at” or that you don’t want to learn.
- Reflect on the reasons why you don’t want to learn to do them or why you think you’re not good at them.
Next, think about to whom you deflect that task.
- Is it always the same person?
- Is there a reason why the task shouldn’t be rotated among other people?
If it’s always the same person and the task is not core to the person’s role, step up and break the cycle of weaponised incompetence.
During an insightful discussion, Rose Cartolari challenged the use of weaponised incompetence as an expression that may further the divide between the giver and the receiver of the action. Instead, she offered the less violent and loaded term learned helplessness for reflection.
The American Psychological Association defines learned helplessness as “a phenomenon in which repeated exposure to uncontrollable stressors results in individuals failing to use any control options that may later become available. Essentially, individuals are said to learn that they lack behavioral control over environmental events, which, in turn, undermines the motivation to make changes or attempt to alter situations”.
I wonder if a term like strategic helplessness could be used instead of weaponised incompetence. I love to get your feedback on the comments on this expression.
BACK TO YOU: What do you do when co-workers use weaponised incompetence to get you to do low-value/unpromotable tasks?
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