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Work Advice: Strategic incompetence demands a strategic response

ByTeam BB

Apr 20, 2023

Every job involves tedious administrative tasks and tiresome procedures. If you’ve ever worked with someone who just can’t seem to get the hang of those tasks and procedures, and never seems to get around to mastering them because “you do them so much better,” you might be dealing with what’s known as strategic incompetence.

Strategic incompetence is not necessarily a conscious choice so much as a reflexive rejection of activity that feels unrewarding and unimportant. We all do it to some extent. But it becomes a problem when colleagues regularly have to take on someone else’s scut work or put more thought into fixing work product than was put into creating it.

Some questions to consider if you think you’re being subjected to strategic incompetence:

  • Is it intentional avoidance, or genuine difficulty? People with executive function issues may struggle to perform or prioritize tasks appropriately. Some absorb oral instructions better than written ones, or vice versa. And, of course, some tasks just take time and repetition to master at one’s own pace.
  • Why should they care about doing it your way? Does their bad work hinder other people downstream, result in a substandard product or pose a threat to the employer? If not, is it possible you’re overinvested?
  • How can you redirect consequences to the responsible party? While it would be nice if perfection were everyone’s baseline goal, if there is no significant benefit to doing it right or disadvantage to doing it wrong, there’s no incentive for them to care more — especially if they know someone else will take care of it. If you’re not in a position to enforce performance standards on someone you suspect of underperforming, then you may have to be a bit strategic about your own response — for example, by being less available or setting new boundaries. Bear in mind, flexibility and transparency are still important; covertly setting someone up to fail makes you part of the problem.

Let’s look at some examples of readers dealing with incompetence that may or may not be strategic in nature.

Reader: My supervisor retired last year. I trained for her position and essentially did her job for a few months. I interviewed for her job along with other internal and external candidates. While I understand nothing is guaranteed, I had been at my workplace for 16 years, have great working relationships, and no one else inside the agency was qualified. Instead, the hiring manager picked someone from outside the agency.

For six months, I’ve tried to be the bigger person and help the new supervisor. Despite my explanations, clearly written guidance and procedural flow charts, she makes numerous mistakes that could have been avoided if she had paid attention. I realize it takes time to learn something I’ve had years of experience with, but it’s like she’s not making an effort and is ignoring tools that are at her fingertips. If I complain, I’ll seem bitter.

Work Advice: My boss’s writing is full of errors. How can I help her improve?

Karla: “Bitter” seems a strong word, but it’s clear you’re unhappy to be helping an outsider do the job you wanted, and chafing at seeing it done incorrectly.

As you wisely note, you’ve spent years embedded in what she’s had six months to learn. In those years, I’m willing to bet you came by some of your knowledge by making mistakes and having to correct them. It’s time to start letting her make the job truly hers — mistakes and all. She may not realize how consequential her mistakes are if you’re there to catch the chips before they fall to the ground. Alternatively, some of the details you’re sweating may turn out to be less crucial than you expect.

If you continue to perform part of your old supervisor’s duties, your employer is getting two advanced-level employees for the price of one. If you want to distinguish yourself, it may be time to transition out of helper mode and into a different role of your own.

Reader: A co-worker hired four years ago is not doing his job. At the interview he presented samples similar to what we need. However, he still needs constant “babysitting,” asking how to do things or using outdated templates. I have to edit over 50 percent of each draft he submits to apply the proper format or correct the focus.

Recently, before going on medical leave, I drafted reports for two major projects so he only had to fill in the results. When I returned, the projects were completed, but he had done none of the required reporting, which opens us up to being audited.

My boss knows there is a problem but says, “they must have a memory issue or some medical issue.” Meanwhile I have been told by both a counselor and medical professional that the stress from doing work he should have done is adversely affecting my health.

Work Advice: How can I defend my reputation when my edits are ignored?

Karla: In your case, there are clear and serious consequences — audits — to substandard work; ignoring reporting procedures is not a viable option. But if you’re cleaning up his goofs, he has no incentive to do better.

Your colleague’s satisfactory interview samples suggest he can meet standards when it matters to him — or his samples were borrowed from or reworked by someone else. Ideally, someone in authority could ask him what it would take for him to bring his current work in line with those early drafts. Also, you could be authorized to return marked-up drafts to your colleague so he can fix them himself, for as many rounds as it takes.

Incidentally, why are his hypothetical medical issues allowed to exacerbate your diagnosed ones? Bring up your health-damaging stress and potential solutions to your boss. If your colleague has a medical or cognitive issue holding him back, that’s for him to bring up when the boss points out issues with his performance.

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