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.  

Three truths about how people respond to information

A warning. This blog will only be of interest if you’ve ever experienced someone:

  • Refusing to change their mind despite evidence to the contrary
  • Being blind to their faults
  • Making decisions differently depending on what day you catch them on

That’s all of us, right?

Influencing the behaviour of your customer starts by recognising they are not a blank slate, eagerly awaiting your brilliance. In my experience there are three truths about where they are coming from, and this shapes how to approach best them. If you want an insight in how I use these truths to structure proposals, presentations and websites, read on.

1. Your customer is the scriptwriter

Whatever you tell your customer will be slotted into an existing narrative about the world.  It’s like you are trying to introduce a new storyline into an existing TV series they have scripted with established characters and plot points.

Known as the “Narrative Fallacy”, people tend to bind facts or events together even where no causal relationship exists. If you listen to one of hundreds of podcasts on how an entrepreneur has found success you’ll hear such narratives play out. In share trading, people tend to believe past performance will help them predict future performance, ignoring the role of luck and uncontrollable events.

It means your customer will have a view of how the world works, and will treat your perspective as something that either fits or does not.  As a result, they are prone to:

  • Proactively seek information that confirms rather than disaffirms their view (Confirmation Bias) and
  • Reactively distort information to retain equilibrium (Resolving cognitive dissonance)

A potent illustration of this comes in the form of a survey of 174 business executives.  When asked to describe their decision-making style, 42% said they were data-driven and 17% empirical. Only 10% claimed to be intuitive.

When subsequently asked how they would proceed if data contradicted their gut feeling, 57% said they would have it reanalysed and 30% said they would collect more data. Only 10% said they would follow the course of action suggested by the data.

In other words, almost 9 out of 10 of decision-makers, the majority of whom believe they are data-driven, ignore or refute data that does not fit with their narrative!

For you:

  • Understand their story. What assumptions are they making about their industry or customers?
  • To get them to be open to considering new input, first uncover reasons why the existing narrative is flawed – this is your grounds to provoke new thinking
  • Then, to start re-writing the narrative get them to agree that the status quo is not perfect
  • Finally, introduce your new storyline that they can easily integrate into their perspective


Before I can get people to consider using behavioural economics I must first get them to agree that there are flaws in how we currently think people behave. My training sessions deliberately start with a consideration of why we can’t rely on what people say they’ll do or assume they are rational.  Only once we’ve agreed that these problems exist can I introduce a way to resolve the challenge.

And for bonus points, did you notice how I introduced this blog? I started with shared frustration to incite curiosity.

2. Your customer is the hero of their own story

Not only does your customer write the story, they make themselves the hero. Avoid diminishing or insulting their sense of uniqueness, and always approach the situation from a “what’s in it for me?” perspective.

Being the hero means your customer will rationalise and justify their beliefs and actions. They will be prone to:

  • Act differently depending on whether they are addressed personally (Identify Bias)
  • Excuse their own poor behaviour if they are otherwise ‘good’ (Self- licensing)
  • Internalise credit for their own success but blame the external situation for any missteps, whilst attributing reasons for the success and failure of others’ in the opposite direction (Fundamental Attribution Error)

For you:

  • Treat them as a person not a process and ensure everything you do considers their “WIIFM?”
  • Presentations – proposals or seminars – will tank if you start by talking about yourself. They don’t care about you yet, so lead with insights about them or their industry before introducing what you have to offer later.
  • Spell their name correctly!


  • The first 75% of my proposals are all about the customer – their situation and how it can be resolved. I only include details about my credentials at the end, by which time they are curious.
  • When asking your customer to do something (e.g. sign up to a newsletter), tell them what they get (free news) before what they have to give (their email)
  • Your website needs to be about them, not you. Your history and philosophy should be deprioritised  (i.e. not on the home page). Rest assured,  if your customer is interested, they’ll find it.

3. Your customer runs on batteries

Emotional and cognitive energy is limited.  That means your customer will follow the path of least resistance wherever possible and is prone to making superficial expedient decisions. That means “good enough’ (or “satisficing”) rather than “maximising” decisions.

You will have seen the implications of limited battery-power in your friendly neighbourhood supermarket.  There’s a reason they sell sweets at the checkout -people are prone to indulge once their self-control is depleted.

In a study by Shiv and Fedorikhin (1999), for example, a group of participants were required to remember a two-digit number before being asked to venture down the hallway for an interview. On the way, and seemingly as an after thought, they were offered their choice of fruit salad or chocolate cake from a snack cart. People chose fruit and cake in almost equal measure.

A second group were required to remember a seven-digit number. This time people overwhelmingly chose the chocolate cake. Why? The longer number had chewed up their battery, leaving them to the mercy of their indulgent impulses.

Being battery-powered means customers will be prone to:

  • Leave things as they are when they are fatigued (Ego depletion)
  • Rely more heavily on fast, intuitive, habitual System 1 thinking when tired, than slow, deliberate, detail-oriented System 2
  • Follow recommendations if they trust the person making it

For you:

What state of energy do you want your customer in? 

  • High energy can mean your customer will be open to thinking more about what you are suggesting, but that can also invite pointed objections.
  • Low energy can mean a more passive audience, which can be good or bad depending on their mood. A passive, negatively disposed customer will not be bothered to contemplate change unless it is the easiest path to follow. A passive, positively inclined customer will tend to roll with your suggestions.


  • I send my newsletter to most people in the morning so they are fresh and interested in new ideas.
  • I believe my Friday coaching sessions are more popular than Mondays for two reasons. Mondays often have a condensed, business-as-usual vibe where people are just getting back in to what they need to get accomplished. Fridays are typically more expansive, where people like to talk about interesting concepts.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.