Weaponized Incompetence: What It Is And How To Spot The Signs

Sometimes a coworker or boss asks you to do something for them because they genuinely don't know how to do it and want to learn; other times, they could be using their incompetency strategically against you. This is the general idea behind weaponized or strategic incompetence — someone using their incompetency to manipulate others into doing things they don't want to do. Sometimes this is done unconsciously and not maliciously, but it has the same result: someone unfairly ends up with more than their share of the workload. Weaponized incompetence has a gendered component in that women are bearing the brunt of the workload in performing tasks that have historically been labeled as "women's work" in both their home lives and workplaces.

According to Melanie Ho (via HuffPost), organizational consultant and author of "Beyond Leaning In: Gender Equity and What Organizations Are Up Against," women have been experiencing weaponized incompetence for a long time. Ho also shared her personal experience with weaponized incompetence, saying, "In a previous job, I had a group of female co-workers where we'd joke about our 'gendered task of the day' every time we did something that wasn't an official responsibility but that women did to a disproportionate extent." Some of these gendered tasks could be cleaning up after others or planning work celebrations, but they can also include responsibilities like supporting diversity and inclusion initiatives and being responsible for employee well-being — but not being compensated for it.

What does weaponized incompetency in the workplace look like?

Women have long been outperforming men when it comes to household tasks and many are finding that having to perform unpaid work is spilling over into their work lives as they are put in charge of office housework like cleaning up, writing meeting minutes, organizing office parties, shopping for gifts, and other work that keeps a business running smoothly but is uncompensated and non-promotable.

Women leaders do more than men to support employee well-being and diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace without being compensated for it, according to Lean In's 2022 Women in the Workplace study. Weaponized incompetence in the workplace could also appear as coworkers or bosses acting like they can't use software or computer programs correctly in order for someone else to bear the brunt of the work. One woman shared with HuffPost an experience she had of her boss manipulating her into doing technical work (that was not her responsibility) by acting like he was incompetent: "Another boss ― also a white middle-aged man ― would consistently make price adjustment mistakes, meaning someone else on the team would have to correct each individual line item, and he was the one who taught me how to adjust the prices in the first place." She eventually gave in to doing the work herself since it was easier than trying to rely on her boss to do it right.

Why does it occur and what can we do about it?

Weaponized incompetence in the workplace is caused by a variety of factors and goes beyond your coworkers or bosses simply being lazy. For one, gender norms have been ingrained in us since we were kids and men may consciously or unconsciously think that certain tasks (cleaning the dishes piling up in the breakroom sink, helping a new employee become acclimated to work, organizing teambuilding activities, etc.) are not their responsibility for the fact that women typically do those things. It may also be a strategic career move on the part of the incompetent person — avoiding unrecognized work allows them to focus on other, more promotable tasks and therefore move up in the company faster.

If you find your coworker or boss acting clueless about performing a task, making repetitive mistakes, or saying things like, "You're just better at this than I am," without having the desire to learn or improve their skills, you may want to evaluate whether you are being manipulated or taken advantage of. It's not always done with bad intentions — maybe your coworkers don't realize how much time goes into planning a work party — which is why it's so important to speak openly with your colleagues and managers. Make sure to set clear boundaries when it comes to sharing responsibilities; if you are asked to do something that isn't your job, don't be afraid to take it up with higher authorities, including HR.