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My wife once told me of a time when she was sitting in a classroom and the teacher recounted a story about his own relationship with his spouse. According to the teacher, his wife had asked him to do the laundry for the first time, something he certainly didn’t want to do. So, he came up with a plan. Instead of using regular laundry detergent, he used bleach—for everything. He did this knowing what the result would be. When his wife got home and saw the disastrous aftermath, the teacher claimed he didn’t know any better. His wife relented, telling him never to do the laundry again. In this case, the teacher used weaponized incompetence to get his way.
When my wife first told me this story, I thought it was humorous. In fact, I even congratulated the teacher for what I took as a brilliant strategy to get out of doing the laundry. But my wife merely shook her head and explained how what the teacher accomplished didn’t just put more burden on his spouse—it did so through manipulative and deceitful means. Such is the danger that comes from weaponized incompetence.
In instances of weaponized incompetence, relationships are put to the test. Those relationships may be between couples, family members, or even coworkers. It’s a dynamic that creates unnecessary strain on these relationships through an unequal distribution of work. At a time when cooperation and collaboration are vital for success at home and in the workplace, weaponized incompetence threatens long-term sustainability and respect. That’s not to mention the possible effects it can have on a person’s mental health.
In this article, learn what weaponized incompetence is, the psychology behind it, its negative effects, and the signs that someone close to you is using it.
What Is Weaponized Incompetence?
Weaponized incompetence is a type of behavior where one person feigns being unable to perform a task well to get someone else to do it instead.
According to communication and relationship coach Chloe Ballatore, weaponized incompetence is a form of passive-aggression that can create toxic relationships. “It’s a way of communicating that falls into the seducing with guilt category, and ‘You have to help me because I’m too dumb to do it,’ is the scripted message,” Ballatore says. “If you are in a relationship with someone who plays this game, be ready to set a price tag for this behavior.”
Research from Pew has found that an unequal division of labor is the norm. The organization found that 59 percent of moms do more household chores with only 6 percent saying dads do more. Additionally, 74 percent of mothers say they do more to help with their children’s schedules and activities compared to only 3 percent of fathers who say the same. It should be noted that the presence of this uneven distribution isn’t necessarily evidence of weaponized incompetence, but it could be an outward sign something is wrong.
Negative Effects of Weaponized Incompetence
- Decreased productivity
- Loss of morale
- Increased mental load leading to poor mental health
- Loss of trust
- Hurt feelings
- Damaged relationships
- Lack of growth and development
- Strained communication
Weaponized Incompetence in the Workplace
Much of the time, people look at weaponized incompetence through the lens of personal relationships, but it can crop up in the workplace as well. A manager may have little to no idea of how much work it takes to complete a task, or they may believe a team has all the resources they need without asking. In some cases, managers will promise the moon so they look good while expecting their team members to handle the heavy lifting. Tessa West, an author and NYU social psychologist explains why this behavior can fester: “A lot of leaders get this way because organizations encourage this and reward it.”
It’s worth noting that a coworker displaying incompetence doesn’t always mean they’re using it to get ahead. They may, in fact, be a victim of the Peter Principle, where they have advanced in their careers to a point where they’ve reached a position they’re unqualified for. In such cases, they may try their best, but management has put them in a role where they cannot succeed.
The Psychology Behind Weaponized Incompetence
Some experts believe that weaponized incompetence psychology is something people learn early in life. According to Anjula Mutanda, a psychotherapist of the British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy, it can even start with children. “I think the roots of this can start quite young,” Mutanda says. “For example, a child may learn that they can get out of cleaning their bedroom by doing it really badly and this kind of behavior can be carried into adult life.”
Even if a person doesn’t engage in weaponized incompetence as a child, they may still pick it up as an adult. Carrie Krawiec, a marriage and family therapist, says that once adults get what they want using a particular strategy, they’re more likely to keep using that strategy. “When a person’s load is lightened by playing dumb, they are the benefactor of negative reinforcement,” Krawiec explains. “When a person learns they can’t rely on others and only get satisfaction from doing it their own way, they’re also more likely to repeat their behavior.”
Why People Use Weaponized Incompetence
- Avoid Accountability: If someone wants to avoid taking responsibility or receiving the blame, weaponized incompetence provides an “easy out” for them.
- Provide Distractions: In some cases, weaponized incompetence can work to distract someone from other failures or behaviors that they would prefer never see the light of day.
- Gain or Maintain Power: Those individuals at a higher level may use it to maintain their position of authority. If they’re able to convince others not to aspire to their position, they can fend off the competition.
- Manipulate Others: Weaponized incompetence is often used to manipulate emotions to gain favors or sympathy. It’s a tactic people will use so that others will provide special treatment or support whether for a work project or household chores.
- Lower Expectations: If someone is able to lower the expectations of those around them, that often translates to being able to act with less pressure or scrutiny.
- Learned Behavior: At times, people teach others that they will do all the work. This is most common when dealing with micromanagers who always want to step in and take over for someone, thereby robbing them of the chance and motivation to learn.
7 Signs You’re Dealing With Weaponized Incompetence
Weaponized incompetence isn’t always easy to identify, but if you know the signs, you can recognize it either in a relationship or in general. The following signs are some of the most common indications of weaponized ignorance. If you find that some of these signs apply to you, then you may also be guilty of employing this tactic.
1. Lack of Progress
Even if a person has everything they need—support, resources, encouragement—they can’t seem to make any progress. Tasks usually don’t get done, and projects fail to meet their deadlines no matter what they do.
What they might say: “I’m a slow learner. Just have a bit of patience with me.”
2. Shifting Blame
The individual doesn’t ever want to take responsibility for their actions. Instead, they say it’s always someone else’s fault that something didn’t get done or that they came up short. They have no desire to improve since, in their mind, they were never at fault.
What they might say: “I couldn’t do it because I was never trained properly. The instructions I received were also unclear.”
3. Unwillingness to Learn
The person continues to decline multiple opportunities to learn new skills and try new things, even if they’re simple tasks. They don’t see the importance of gaining new knowledge and may even resist any teaching attempts.
What they might say: “Now is not a good time for me to learn that. I just can’t seem to fit it into my schedule.”
4. Setting a Low Bar
When doing something new, the individual goes out of their way to set extremely low expectations. This tactic allows for failure without consequence and provides them the opportunity to quickly move on to something else before learning what they did wrong.
What they might say: “I guess I’ll give it a shot, but I’ll just say beforehand that I don’t think I’m good at this. Someone else might be a better choice.”
5. Frequent Mistakes
Everyone makes mistakes from time to time. It’s part of being human. However, if someone keeps making mistakes over and over, they may be utilizing weaponized incompetence. This may be especially true if they make the same mistakes while performing the same tasks.
What they might say: “I’ve always struggled doing this. I really can’t help it.”
6. Constant Disorganization
In this case, the individual does a poor job of keeping everything organized. That might show in their schedule, how they perform tasks, or the environment they live or work in. Even simple efforts to create a more organized space are dismissed without much explanation.
What they might say: “I can be a bit scatterbrained at times. I guess I’m just too busy to do much about it.”
7. Overreliance on Help
No matter the person, everyone needs help at some point. The difference between providing a normal level of assistance versus catering to someone who uses strategic incompetence is the latter almost always requests help, even for tasks they should have done many times before. This same individual will often refuse to even do the task if they don’t get the help they seek. Silvi Saxena, a certified clinical trauma professional, says this shouldn’t happen with coworkers since you should have similar qualifications and capabilities. “If a coworker is asking you to take their work because you are ‘better at it,'” she writes, “they are taking advantage of you.”
What they might say: “I can’t do all this on my own. Isn’t there someone more qualified and capable to give me a hand?”
One thing to note is that these are only possible signs of weaponized incompetence and not a guarantee that someone is employing it. Don’t jump to conclusions just because an individual often needs help or shows a reluctance to learn. But you should notice the red flags before things turn into significant problems in the future.
How to Combat Weaponized Incompetence
Hold People Accountable
Establishing a culture of accountability is the first step toward combating weaponized incompetence. Clearly define roles and expectations from the outset. Discuss how well they’re doing during regular performance evaluations. Ultimately, be prepared to implement fair consequences if someone doesn’t meet expectations.
Directly Address Inappropriate Behavior
There’s no need to beat around the bush when it comes to strategic incompetence. Tackle the subject head-on instead of using vague generalities. People only change when they know you are aware they have a problem and intend to do something about it.
Promote a Culture of Transparency
A culture that values transparency leaves little room for individuals to conceal their true abilities or intentions. In an environment where information is readily available, people can identify inconsistencies or deliberate acts of incompetence. A culture of transparency also encourages open feedback, allowing people to voice concerns or suspicions without fear of punishment.
People should know what their role entails. If someone asks them to do more than that, they would be crossing a boundary. Once you know what your established boundaries are, you can more easily identify when someone is trying to take advantage of you.
When communication is clear, there’s little wiggle room to get out of performing tasks. If you’re dealing with someone using weaponized incompetence, speak directly about the problem and why it negatively affects you and everyone else. Clear communication also contributes toward coming up with effective solutions.
Healthy Relationships Require Reciprocity
Weaponized incompetence isn’t a situation where a reluctant leader is hesitant to take charge. It’s much more serious than that. If you suspect that you are in a situation where someone is weaponizing incompetence to avoid responsibility and burden others with more work, you need to address the problem immediately. “It may seem hard to imagine, but addressing this involves holding others accountable and allowing yourself to not be the ‘fixer’ in every situation,” writes Saxena.
You can also seek professional help if needed. For example, if a spouse is using weaponized incompetence, you may need the help of a family therapist.
Healthy relationships need open communication, mutual responsibility, and reciprocity. As long as someone is making progress and improving, showing patience with them can go a long way. Much of the success you’ll find in combating this tactic comes down to communication.
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