How to survive an incompetent leader

I learnt a great deal from my 15 years in the corporate sector, including how incompetence is condoned. Like teachers who pass ‘problem’ children on to the next grade, workplaces are rife with incompetent staff who float through the organisation; Dimwit’s who outlast and outplay their more competent colleagues.

If you are one of those competent, diligent workers who finds themselves surrounded by, or worse, lead by a bumbling fool, here are some realities I’ve observed and tips on how to survive.

Lesson 1. Deadwood floats

‘Deadwood floats’. Larger organisations are the natural habitat of incompetent people. Here they can stay sufficiently under the radar so their lack of productivity remains undiscovered, duck any business-critical work, pop in and out of meetings to be seen as involved, avoid eye contact when actions are assigned by tapping away on their tablet like a possessed chicken, and morphing into the background of their team such that they can claim credit for the good outcomes but disavowal the bad.

This means that when the inevitable organisational purge happens, incompetents are more prone to survive. As we know, if a TV show is not rating, the stars get fired, not the extras. Before you know it, the organisation is full of D-listers as your talented people leave and the zombie brigade multiplies.

Lesson 2. Stupidity is domain specific

Incompetent people are not incompetent at everything. A past colleague of mine, for example, was perceived as lazy and useless. At work, yes. But he was also a gifted triathlete who did things we could never do with his body. Did this make it easier to work with him? No. But it did show he was not lazy at all, just differently motivated. In the right hands, he could have been turned into a much more productive and engaged employee.

I choose to think that people believe they are doing a good job. That their perception doesn’t accord with reality is the job of their boss to correct. Do they know what doing a good job for you actually means? Don’t assume they do. Rather than playing their game and expect less of them, expect more.

Lesson 3. They don’t think they are

You can’t call a lazy or incompetent person lazy or incompetent because that’s not how they see themselves. People like to maintain a positive self-view, and we do that by rationalising our own actions and externalising blame. Somewhere in their brain they think they are an OK person, that they are doing a good job. To think otherwise would cripple them with cognitive dissonance. Under challenge, they will get hyper-defensive and double down because they have had to rationalise to themselves more than they will even need to with you. They’ll beat you at this game because they’ve already played it. Your only hope is to focus on the outcome they failed to deliver rather than suggest it is a flaw in their very nature.

Lesson 4. Incompetence is infectious

Incompetence leeches into the fabric of an organisation. The behaviour you walk past, you accept. If the norm in the organisation is to walk past ineptitude, then that’s a leadership issue. Only when the boss is seen (not simply heard) to model the behaviours of dedication, commitment and engagement will tolerance for incompetence be eroded.

Too often people who are not pulling their weight are seen as a fringe issue – the weak but inevitable link. Managers start to play down to them, diverting the important work to others and making the team work harder to compensate for the inept. See how complicit we become? But then resentment grows, your best staff leave, good staff become mediocre because, well, “who cares? Why should I bother?”, and bosses get promoted way from the problem. Deadwood wins again!

That’s why it’s so important for the performance gap to be called out as soon as it happens. If other staff see you endorsing incompetence – and make no mistake, your failure to act is an endorsement – then watch productivity deflate like a helium balloon leftover from Christmas.

Lesson 5. Kill incompetence with fresh air and sunlight

Incompetent people thrive on your disinterest and their anonymity. They don’t like feeling their incompetence could be exposed; it makes them agitated, and that interrupts their slothful stasis. If everyone around them interacts and asks about their contribution, taking a real interest, they will either lift their game through social pressure or scurry off to a less exposing workplace. Treating them with kindness, expectation and openness is the best way to eradicate incompetence from the worker.

Lesson 6. Deadwood can rise to the top

Sadly, deadwood too often floats all the way to the top. This is a special type of deadwood, the incompetent person who is deliberately so because it frees them to do what they do best – manipulate, collude and divide. They thrive because they are impervious to those left in their wake (who are too busy picking up the pieces to see the threat coming), and callous enough to put themselves forward when others are more worthy.

If you have a choice, avoid working for these types of people. If you don’t, protect yourself from their toxicity. Work out in what currency they trade – ego, results, power – and interact with this is mind. That will make them more likely to like you, and less likely to be threatened. Hold true to your values and, if you have to, be a little deadwood yourself. Withhold. Look after your health. Distance yourself enough so you don’t become tarred by association, but stay close enough not to be seen as challenging their authority. Know that work is not everything and better times, eventually, will arrive.  

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