On Purpose or Accidental Incompetence? Do you find yourself saying – ‘Oh, just leave it then and I’ll do it’ or hearing things like – ‘You know you are better than me at doing that’ or that someone you know just never has the time to do the things they were supposed to do, ending up with you having to do it in the end?
My title is a little misleading as this isn’t necessarily about this being on purpose or by accident. But it is about whether someone is knowingly or unknowingly getting you to do something or playing it a bit dumb, because they don’t really want to do it by getting you to do it, or trying to escape some consequences of doing things gives them a sense of control or power.
Is it Weaponised Incompetence or Malicious Incompetence?
A good example of someone feigning incompetence recently is Boris Johnson (UK Prime Minister) and the whole ‘Partygate’ debacle. For Boris Johnson to suggest that he was unaware as to whether he was breaking the law or not, to most seems a very flimsy excuse, but to others a legitimate reason why he attended several parties during the pandemic lockdowns.
Was he genuinely telling the truth, or conveniently playing the innocent to cover up his mistakes? Was he doing something that can be put into the category of Weaponised Incompetence – pretending to be a bit useless in order to get away with something or cover his own misdemeanours?
Weaponised Incompetence can be a shady behaviour. If Boris is lying then he is using the excuse of not knowing he had broken the law, as a way of trying to get away with something, which I guess we have all wanted to do at some time in our lives. But in this case, he is doing it in order to hang onto his job, to remain in power and also pretend to be someone he isn’t. By portraying himself in this way he is being dishonest in order to get what he wants.
In your day-to-day life, you may see examples of this when your partner doesn’t want to do a chore around the house and so delays and delays doing it until you do it yourself, or will do something badly so that you step in and probably never ask them again.
Recently I spoke to a client that was having this issue with their partner loading the dishwasher. ‘How hard can it actually be to load the dishwasher? No matter how many times I tell him where to put things so they wash properly, he just chucks them in so they need washing again. I should just do it myself!’ But guess what, in this case, that is exactly what he wanted her to do.
Doing it in a way that aggravates, irritates, upsets, that gets you to step in is the end goal; is a passive-aggressive way of getting someone to do something that you just, well, really don’t want to do.
When I joined the Fire Brigade, I was asked to make tea for the whole Watch sitting around the mess table. I made the dozen cups of tea or so and everyone seemed to enjoy their cup. That was me set in place, from then on, to make the tea every time. One of my colleagues then pulled me to one side and said, ‘don’t do anything well around here that you don’t want to keep doing all of the time’.
By weaponising my incompetence at making the tea, they would never have asked me again. My pride at being a good tea maker stopped me from doing that one in the future though.
This kind of behaviour has probably been going on for millennia, but the term ‘Weaponised Incompetence’ first seems to appear around 2007. It has been brought into the public consciousness recently via TikTok, where a video shows a husband using it towards his wife in a negligent and somewhat abusive way (this could actually bleed over into Malicious Incompetence in my book).
Weaponised Incompetence is a learned behaviour, generally from childhood. It can be seen as a useful strategy to get out of doing things on a regular basis and sticks with someone throughout their lives. For example: a child may learn that if they don’t tidy their room very well, someone else will step in and do it for them. They then get out of cleaning their room by doing it badly each time. In some cases, they then realise that this is applicable in lots of other circumstances and also in many different relationships and so the pattern of shirking begins.
A child may also have witnessed this in their parents’ relationship, seeing that one will shirk responsibility and ‘get away with it’ – so they do the same, or see the strain it puts on the other person and tries to step in, perhaps, in the future they become the person that assumes all of the responsibilities.
Someone may even see a certain role as beneath them and so won’t even contemplate this as a task they should do, leaving it or assigning it elsewhere.
Weaponised Incompetence is not limited to intimate relationships and can play out within families and work situations as my examples have shown.
Caveat time: there will be situations where someone genuinely doesn’t know how to do something, is too ill to do it, is fearful of getting it wrong or their selective filtering means that they forget it easily (or they are just so disinterested they really don’t want to learn it anyway). We can’t expect someone to buy into an idea and do it our way just because we want them to.
In the long term it can be harmful. In the beginning someone may play on your understanding and empathy when appearing ‘helpless’ or ‘useless’, but if it continues it can turn into a manipulative tool for gain or not to lose.
If you are becoming increasingly resentful in someone’s inability to carry out simple tasks, watching them sit back whilst you carry out the lion’s share of the work within your relationship, then it is likely that they are being incompetent on purpose. And this may even manifest not just in the chores, but the general effort they are putting into the relationship.
To deal with this then firstly sit down with the person concerned and communicate how you feel.
Tell them that you feel unsupported in certain areas of your relationship because of their consistent behaviour and you would like them to share the load/make more of an effort/be more attentive.
That no one really likes doing a, b or c but you are in this together and they need to be done.
They may genuinely be unaware of what they are doing and so this should resolve things quickly and easily. If they are aware of it though, they may not be that quick to change, so be mindful when this is happening and do your best not to step in and take away their responsibilities.
If they really don’t want to make things better for you and the for the sake of the relationship, then you need to consider your next step. Whether that is an ultimatum and consequences, not doing things any longer or moving on.
If you think that you may have high expectations and so this is something you perceive to be happening rather than a real problem, speak to a non-judgemental and honest friend/colleague, someone you trust, as you may be placing too much pressure on someone to be as you need them to be.
Are you actually disempowering someone by taking responsibilities on that you don’t need to, being in control, making sure it is done ‘properly’ (your way), belittling their efforts so that they shy away from attempting anything?
Malicious Incompetence takes things to a whole new level of toxicity.
This isn’t just about being lazy, taking advantage and shirking responsibility. This is where someone uses their ‘faked’ incompetence to gain power, control and manipulate in the extreme. Purposefully using someone to get them to do things for them at the detriment to the other person. Keeping them in a place where they have all of the control, using gaslighting techniques to make someone feel guilty if they don’t do things or run around after them.
Is it a gender issue?
Yes and no. Anyone can show signs of incompetence, whether it be on purpose or accidental. There are several studies that show that Weaponised Incompetence is more of a male thing to do and this could be because of the indoctrinated behaviour I mentioned earlier, stereotyping of roles within households etc. It can be simply expected that women carry out the ‘caretaker’ role and so assume responsibility where it isn’t necessary, or are given it when it needs to be discussed.
It can be seen in the term used – ‘blue jobs and pink jobs’ – that the masculine energy does certain things and the feminine does certain other things, but again, taking this as read and not discussing what is appropriate for the relationship may lead to unrealistic expectations, misunderstandings and problems.
In any cases of Weaponised and Malicious Incompetence, if you can’t seem to resolve this with the person involved, or within yourself then speak to a professional relationship coach who can help you figure out what to do next.