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The Hidden Culprit of Toxic Work Culture: Weaponized Incompetence 

By May 17, 2023Blog

As we recognize Mental Health Awareness Month, it is important to shine a light on an often-overlooked aspect that significantly impacts mental health – the workplace. The workplace is where we spend roughly a third of our lives, and for many, it is a primary source of social interaction and connectivity. Yet, the shadows of toxic work culture often hide a subtle yet destructive behavior called “weaponized incompetence.” 

According to a recent study, approximately 70% of people have been negatively affected by workplace toxicity, and weaponized incompetence plays a significant role in this. This behavior, often overlooked, is an alarming trend where certain individuals strategically feign or amplify their inability to execute tasks, thereby unfairly shifting their responsibilities onto others.  

This troublesome practice disrupts workplace dynamics, creates an undue burden on colleagues, and contributes to a toxic work culture that negatively impacts mental health. The World Health Organization has found that work-related stress, often stemming from such toxic cultures, is a major risk factor for depression and anxiety disorders. 

We see weaponized incompetence manifesting in several ways:

  1. Task Evasion: “You just understand this project better than I do; therefore I’m going to hand it over to you to finish this slideshow presentation.” This clever maneuver is a classic example of dodging responsibility under the guise of incompetence. 
  2. Avoiding Technology: “I’m not good with technology, can you handle this software-related task?” This is a common tactic to evade learning new tools or systems, resulting in an unbalanced workload. 
  3. Deadline Dismissal: “I’m too slow at this, you can do it faster and we don’t have much time.” This excuse is frequently used to avoid tasks with looming deadlines. 
  4. Repeated Errors: Intentionally making mistakes, so the task gets reassigned to someone else. 
  5. Over-reliance on Teammates: “I’m not sure how to do this. Can you help me?” A recurrent cry for help even after receiving adequate training and guidance signifies weaponized incompetence. 
  6. Contradicting Established Procedures: “We have a process for this task, but I think it’s faster if we do it this way just once.” This shows management undermining established procedures, causing confusion and setting a precedent for inconsistency. 

Highlighting this issue, one anonymous employee, took to Glassdoor to vent their frustration: “I became increasingly frustrated in my role as our team was being asked to create established procedures and to help streamline our work and create a culture of transparency. However, even though my team worked hard to adapt to these new practices, company managers consistently failed to follow the processes they had asked us to develop and enforce.” 

Amidst this struggle, bright spots are emerging that shed light on this toxic workplace behavior. Leadership coach Kate Waterfall Hill, for instance, tackles the issue of weaponized incompetence head-on in her popular TikTok channel. Racking up over 761k likes on her videos, Kate applies a comedic lens to serious leadership development issues that plague employers. By calling out these behaviors and offering viable solutions, she’s making strides in promoting a healthier work culture. 

Kate’s videos cover a myriad of relevant workplace issues, including “when the boss is strict on timekeeping for some but not for others,” “when you’re late but then hold up the meeting,” and “when you can’t find messages because you’re using too many channels,” among others. Her humorous, yet on-point commentary underscores just how pervasive and deeply ingrained this type of behavior is within corporate culture. 

Through her work, Kate is not only increasing awareness of weaponized incompetence and its impact on workplace mental health but also providing practical solutions for both employees and employers. The popularity of her content serves as a stark reminder of how much we need this conversation and how much we can achieve by recognizing and addressing toxic workplace behaviors. Together, we can create a healthier, more supportive, and more productive work. 

So, how can colleagues and employers combat this toxic behavior, which directly contributes to mental stress? Here are some actions: 

For Colleagues:  

  1. Seek Clarification: If a manager contradicts established procedures, ask if the changes are temporary or a permanent update to the process. 
  2. Clear Communication: Professionally express concern about the distribution of work using specific examples and propose a more equitable division of tasks. 
  3. Team Discussions: Encourage open discussions about task distribution and the impact of weaponized incompetence on team morale during team meetings. 
  4. Mentorship: Offer mentorship, providing the necessary resources and training to help the person perform their tasks competently. 
  5. Involve Management: If the behavior continues, it may be necessary to involve a manager or HR. 

For Employers:  

  1. Lead by Example: Adhere to the same rules and procedures expected from the team. This promotes a culture of consistency and fairness. 
  2. Set Clear Expectations: Clearly define and communicate job responsibilities, including ongoing tasks, learning new skills, and meeting deadlines. 
  3. Training: Provide adequate training for all employees. If an employee is genuinely struggling, offer additional training or resources. 
  4. Promote a Culture of Accountability: Encourage employees to take ownership of their work by setting individual goals, providing regular feedback, and recognizing good performance. 
  5. Implement Policies: If weaponized incompetence becomes a recurring issue, consider implementing policies that directly address this behavior. This may include a process for reporting these issues and potential consequences for continued behavior. 
  6. Continuous Improvement: Regularly review and improve processes based on team feedback. If managers frequently bypass procedures, it may indicate that the process needs revision. 
  7. Enforce Accountability: If a manager continually undermines established procedures, it may be necessary to take disciplinary action. This sends a clear message that everyone is expected to follow the rules, regardless of their position. 
  8. Provide Leadership Training: Equip managers with training to recognize and address weaponized incompetence. This can include strategies for managing performance and fostering a positive team culture. 
  9. Conflict Resolution: Have a system in place to resolve conflicts and address grievances. Employees should feel comfortable discussing issues without fear of retribution. 

The key to tackling weaponized incompetence lies in fostering a culture of fairness, accountability, and continuous learning. It’s vital for both colleagues and employers to address this issue promptly and professionally, as it significantly impacts productivity, morale, and, importantly, mental health. 

Remember, a toxic work culture doesn’t just happen; it’s a cumulative effect of unhealthy behaviors like weaponized incompetence. Let’s take a stand against it, paving the way for a more supportive, equitable, and mentally healthier work environment.