incompetent people probably have no clue that they’re incompetent

A fascinating Cornell University study a few years back found that people who are incompetent tend to dramatically overestimate their own competence, and people who truly are quite competent tend to underestimate their own performance.

At Inc. today, I talk about the implications of this for managers — such as that you must be explicit with employees who aren’t meeting your expectations rather than assuming that they know it, and that you also need to make sure your best employees know how much you value them. You can read it here.

{ 122 comments… read them below }

  1. the gold digger*

    Alison, is this possibly a typo? I would think a previous boss would not be “thrilled with their work.”

    if they’ve been used to hearing negative feedback from previous bosses as well (who were thrilled with their work but didn’t take the trouble of firing them) and thus didn’t process it as a danger sign.

  2. Ad Astra*

    I have serious impostor syndrome and have always lacked confidence in my abilities, so I don’t overestimate my general competence. But whenever my managers have sat me down for a Serious Discussion About My Performance, I’m always floored at their specific complaints. Almost without exception, the things that my managers are most concerned about are things I thought I was doing just fine.

    I think I’m getting better, though, because now when my manager brings up an issue I usually have an inkling that I’ve goofed up somewhere — which makes it a thousand times easier to explain what went wrong and I how I can prevent it. But it’s pretty hard to make my boss angry, and I’m new to the company and the industry, so sometimes it can be tricky to gauge the seriousness of a mistake. Alison’s advice is awesome as usual.

  3. Too True*

    OMG! This is the very thing that is happening at my place of employment. I swear you are writing about an employee here! I printed out the article and gave it to my boss to read! Thank you Alilson for another great article!

  4. BRR*

    +1 to being direct with poor performing employees (I’m thinking specifically of the “if you were fired who would you tell first” post as well as my own past where I had only been receiving praise).

    I think this study also relates to when there’s an employee doing something wrong and instead of addressing it with that employee somebody sends out a memo to the entire department.

    1. Meg Murry*

      Another +1 to directness, not the roundabout memo.

      And to add another point of irritation – don’t address it with the other person or the memo if that’s the route you take with softening language like “should”. If you tell me I “should” have the TPS reports to you by Thursday, then I am going to prioritize that task below the person who tells me I “must” have the ABC report to him by Thursday.

      Should is a suggestion. Must and need are commands. Use them appropriately. Or let me know “when boss says ‘should’ – interpret that as ‘you should do this is you want to keep your job’ ” as one of my co-workers clued me in early on. It ticked me off, but at least someone clued me in to how “should” worked in that office.

  5. Anon for this*

    Mind you, some people will still be surprised. At a former job, a low-performing employee was given a formal PIP that X and Y needed to stop happening, and Z to start happening, or he would lose his job. It was spelled out quite clearly.

    X and Y continued happening. Z did not start happening. He lost his job. And he was shocked. I still don’t understand how he could be shocked by that.

    1. BenAdminGeek*

      Yup- I had the same experience with the first employee I had to fire. Every step in progressive discipline was met with incredulity, and the day she was let go was a complete shock to her. She thought the meeting was going to be a vindication from HR about how she’d been treated so unfairly by the organization.

      1. Sascha*

        “about how she’d been treated so unfairly by the organization.”

        That’s the kicker right there. People who are in constant denial of their incompetence typically think everything is everyone else’s fault, so even if they are on a very explicit, formal PIP, they think someone else (their manager, coworkers, etc) are to blame. See also: “drama follows me wherever I go”

        1. some1*

          IME, people like this are also the type of people who hear what they want to hear, or I should say BELIEVE what they want.

        2. afiendishthingy*

          I fired my first person over the summer. We had spoken to her numerous times about a specific policy she kept violating – the first time or two we told her in person, no formal disciplinary action, that she had done X but the policy said she must do Y, then there was a verbal warning, then a written warning in which we said If You Violate This Policy Again You Will Be Fired. Two days after the written warning I stopped by her worksite and found that yes, she had done X again in violation of the policy. When I fired her she said that I had “always had it in for [her]” and that I had “set [her] up” because she hadn’t known I was going to be at her worksite on that day. Because apparently she thought the policy was Don’t Get Caught Violating This Policy.

        3. Hey Nonny Nonny*

          “People who are in constant denial of their incompetence typically think everything is everyone else’s fault, . . . they think someone else. . . [is] to blame. See also: ‘drama follows me wherever I go.’”

          ::sigh:: This is my boyfriend in a nutshell. External factors are *always* the reason he isn’t able to be honest, trustworthy, responsible, kind, compassionate, and reliable. If the ENTIRE WORLD would change to meet his expectations [even those he has of random strangers], he just *might* be able to become the good person he imagines himself to be. But, darn it all, the rest of the world doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass about him and his preferences/shoulds, so he’s stuck being a selfish jerk. The poor dear.

          1. ancolie*

            … Like Sarahnova, this made me think, “so why is he still xir boyfriend??” I mean, it doesn’t sound like you even like him, from the tone of the comment.

      2. BenAdminGeek*

        Additional fun was had when her spouse (also an employee at the company) came storming down to her desk to collect pictures and personal effects, and I had to intervene so that no company data went missing. Then he spent the next week walking through our area on breaks glaring at us. We had to get his director involved to make it stop. Good times, good times….

      1. Blurgle*

        It’s sometimes called “narcissistic personality disorder”. In fact, it’s a defining symptom.

        1. Blurgle*

          By that I don’t mean obliviousness or incompetence; I mean the combination of overestimating one’s own competence, not improving after copious appropriate feedback, and (above all) expecting vindication from HR.

    2. Windchime*

      We had this guy at our office, too. I posted about him several times. He was on a PIP, we were constantly having to correct his work (many times after it had gone to production), and he was explicitly told that his job was in immediate danger by his boss. And he was still upset and totally shocked when the sad day came that he lost his job. Did not see it coming at all. I felt so sad for him, but it was amazing to me that he could have somehow just not understood what he was explicitly being told.

    3. Shortie*

      This. I have had this happen before. The person was clearly told on many occasions–both verbally and in writing–exactly what needed to change…and still acted like the performance review was the first time it had been mentioned.

    4. Rebecca*

      Haha, yes! I had to fire an employee for attendance issues. Wrote her up twice, each time stating that further absences will result in termination. When I told her she was being terminated due to attendance issues, her reply was, “Just like that?” Ummm….

  6. Sonya Mann*

    This terrifies me whenever I think about it. I feel pretty sure that I’m competent, but I obviously I’d feel the same even if I weren’t! ARGH.

    1. Arjay*

      Me three. Especially since I’m having one of those days where everything I think seems to be wrong. :)

    2. ThursdaysGeek*

      And when my boss doesn’t tell me anything, good or bad, how do I know if I’m doing a good job?! I think I am, but I’m always wondering. If I’m wondering, does that mean maybe I am competent, because I’m concerned enough to wonder?

      1. fposte*

        Oh, I know this rabbit hole! “But I’d also wonder if I was incompetent, so how can I assuming wondering is enough to prove I’m competent?”

    3. CrazyCatLady*

      Ugh, same here! I have/had pretty bad imposter syndrome and am now working up to a place where my self-esteem is better and I’m able to recognize that I’m more than competent. But if I think I’m competent, does that actually mean I’m incompetent?! Oh, the places my mind goes when I read things like this.

      1. SaraD, in Scotland*

        I think the people who genuinely assume that they are fantastic, while not being so, are the type who downplay any errors. “Oh, there was a typo on the front cover but no one reads that”, or ‘hey, I forgot to order a vegetarian option for the conference but I hardly know any vegetarians anyway”.

        People who worry about their performance, admitting to and owning their mistakes, are not the problem!

        1. Windchime*

          The guy I was referring to upthread was convinced that there wasn’t a problem because all of the mistakes were eventually fixed (usually by someone else, since The Guy’s fixes usually resulted in something else breaking). He was really shocked to be let go, and it was sad.

        2. Hey Nonny Nonny*

          I know someone — ahem, intimately — who believes that just by saying, “But I *thought* about doing it!” excuses him from, ya know, not ACTUALLY doing it. (“Oh, you *thought* about doing it? Well, hell, that’s completely different! I’m so sorry I got mad at you for not doing it. I didn’t realize you’d *thought* about it. That’s a totally different thing. My bad. Here’s your gold star.”)

          1. Argh!*

            I get “I was just about to do that” or “This thing just landed on my desk the moment you appeared.”

            It’s magic! I appear at exactly the right time, when the computer monitor screen is quickly minimized ;-) so the supremely competent and confident supervisee can move on to the next task. I wonder what would happen if I passed through the office every 10 minutes instead of a few times a day?

          2. A Non*

            Between this and your earlier comment, please tell me this is a soon-to-be-ex boyfriend. Life’s too short for putting up with an immature guy’s crap.

      2. afiendishthingy*

        I know, this is my train of thought exactly. Fortunately my boss has explicitly told me on at least one occasion “I think you give your weaknesses a lot more weight than your strengths” and that I should be more confident in my abilities, so I guess she thinks I’m competent? But I would be better at my job if I were more confident? And yeah then MAYBE I’LL GET TOO COCKY. Oh, JerkBrain.

  7. Amy R*

    Failing your way UP is indeed a thing. I’ve thought about failing on purpose to see if it would work for me. Turns out I can’t purposefully do my job poorly!

    1. CrazyCatLady*

      +1 When I’m really demoralized, I so badly want to just stop caring about how well I do my work, but I can’t do poorly intentionally. It’s just not in my nature at all.

    1. Christina*

      YES THIS. It is exactly what’s happening in my department with my incompetant manager giving more and more tasks to her even less competent subordinate (tasks which should be done by staff who have training and proven successes, who are getting less and less of those tasks because they are seen as the incompetent ones by said manager). It starts to feel like being the sane one in an asylum, you start to wonder if you’re really the crazy one.

      1. NicoleK*

        OMG. Yes x 1,000. My incompetent boss dealt with the incompetent person by giving her more authority. I’m working in the twilight zone.

        1. AggrAV8ed Tech*

          Same happened here! If something bad happened, it was instantly my fault, despite all evidence to the contrary pointing squarely at his incompetent underling. Really made me question my own competence quite a bit, thinking, “Wait…DID I do something wrong…?

      1. AnonPi*

        +1000. My team leader is like this. Even something said in jest and not even directed at her, and she’ll get defensive and start snapping at people.

      2. Willow*

        Like my current coworker? He thinks receiving feedback is “shaming,” even if it is done privately. He has major issues with women telling him anything. He should not have come to the U.S. pig he is unwilling to work with women.

    2. Lia*

      I dealt with it by finding another job. Upper management just didn’t care (top level) or thought I — and the rest of the direct reports — were nuts because her chosen hire was obviously the most gifted individual to ever set foot on earth (his boss, the mid-level manager).

      Almost all of the rest of the staff followed in my footsteps, and some enormous fails happened as a result, and eventually, Incompetent Tool got himself — and his boss, who had twisted herself into a pretzel to support him at her own expense — also got the boot.

  8. The Other Dawn*

    I’ve worked with several people that though they were quite competent and fantastic, but actually sucked big time; it was a real pain.

    And I totally agree with the article that these people don’t have a clue they’re not awesome, even when they’ve gotten the necessary critical feedback.

    1. Beancounter in Texas*

      I have a guy working on my team now like that. He was presented as being competent enough to do my job and I had hopes that once I got him oriented to our processes, he’d be awesome. But… He just doesn’t have the knowledge. I tried to spur him to learn, but then he just hid stuff when he didn’t know what to do and hoped it went away. So now I just tell him exactly what to do. He is very good at following explicit instructions. This isn’t the right job for him, but I’m powerless to fire him and I haven’t figured out where else in the company he’d be a better fit.

  9. Allison*

    At FirstJob I knew I wasn’t doing well, and for whatever reason my manager wasn’t happy with me, but any time I expressed concern about my performance he’d smile and say I was fine and wondered why I was so paranoid. Until finally the problem got so bad, and he was frustrated enough, to put me on a PIP. I’m no dummy, I knew what a PIP meant. But when I said that I knew a PIP meant I was in danger of being fired, he said “where did you hear that? you’re not in danger of being fired, and you have plenty of time to improve!”

    I was fired.

    My manager wasn’t unclear, he flat out lied. And now I wonder if he lied because he didn’t actually want me to get better and was basically letting the problem get bad on purpose so he could manage me out, or if he didn’t have the backbone to be honest about the problem when it was (probably) fixable.

    The point here is that some people do know they’re not doing a good job, but pretending everything’s fine and hoping they know how they’re really doing, or hoping they know how you really feel about them, isn’t going to help anyone, it’s just going to make everyone much more frustrated. Don’t play mind games with your employees.

    1. Charlotte Collins*

      Unfortunately, incompetent management just exacerbates the problem of incompetent employees. And I think it’s a detriment to everyone. I used to work with someone who was just breathtakingly incompetent (she had been promoted into the position by an incompetent manager who was then moved to a new role), but no one wanted to handle the situation beyond hinting at the fact that other positions might be better, but they were lower paid and she “needed the money.” Her position ended up being cut when we had layoffs, and she might still have a job if she had been willing to take a role more in keeping with her abilities.

      (On some level, I think she knew about her incompetence and the stress actually made her a worse employee. She also had a terrible personality, too, but I still think she was misused.)

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Your last paragraph raises a very good point. It’s detrimental to both an incompetent employee and the company to pretend they are competent (or a good fit) when they clearly are not. Plus, how will they ever know what their strengths are if they have no opportunity to get out of a job at which they do not excel? If you just keep pushing them higher and higher, you’re only exacerbating their issues and causing damage, because good employees will leave to escape a bad manager.

    2. Blue_eyes*

      This totally happened to me, except I ended up resigning. I brought up concerns about my performance, my coworkers and supervisor assured me that I was doing fine. I started to believe that I was doing fine (for a new employee). Then a month or two later, I was getting very negative performance reviews about the exact issues I had previously brought up.

      1. Beancounter in Texas*

        I wonder whether people who say “it’s fine!” even know what’s bothering them. The brain is very capable at maintaining homeostasis psychologically with coping mechanisms, like denial. Often emotions mask the rational reason for being upset.

        Or, maybe it’s like the little things that bug you, but it seems like such a petty issue over which to ask someone to please stop XYZ behavior. Until one day, it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back and you’re blindsided by the rage that you won’t put the soap sponge in the drying rack instead of leaving it in the sink.

    3. Lizabeth*

      It sounds like you were set up to fail. Hard to figure out why the manager would do that without (ugh!) climbing into his head. Hip waders anyone?

      1. Edwina Scissorhands*

        Yes. How suspicious that you were never given constructive feedback to improve your performance. Also, consider that while you weren’t employee of the year, there could have been other reasons – maybe your boss wanted to clean house for whatever reason, or maybe they were lining up someone they knew to take the role.

    4. Rebecca*

      I had a really similar experience in my first job. It was an incredibly difficult job (and I was told that multiple times) and I was very inexperienced. I got a lot of feedback (good and bad) from my first manager, who was then promoted. My new manager gave me very little feedback and really made my life hard. He also got promoted (after a year or so) and literally the day he left he put me on a PIP. I was furious! I was so worried that my third manager’s first impression of me was that I was a problem employee. I had such terrible anxiety every day, I would literally cry on my way to work.

  10. DatSci*

    When you are dead, you don’t know that you are dead. It’s difficult only for others.
    It is the same when you are stupid.

    1. J.B.*

      Now, that’s rather harsh. There was a response right above you about someone who didn’t get the guidance to address things, and there are plenty of bright people who wind up in the wrong roles.

    2. Clever Name*

      I just saw this meme on my Facebook page this morning, and I thought of it when reading this post as well….

    3. Edwina Scissorhands*

      Actually, surely you would know if you were stupid as everything would be a struggle/cofusing. Being stupid is different to being incompetent. I can’t play tennis to save my life – I’m incompetent at it. However, it doesn’t make me stupid because I have terrible hand-eye coordination.

  11. Amber Rose*

    There are also the ones who don’t seem to care they’re incompetent.

    Previous coworker was given one very simple instruction: do one thing at a time, and do that thing slow so you know it’s right. Three people said it in three different ways.

    But he multitasked and rushed and now we’re still cleaning up his errors over a month after he was let go. He wasn’t surprised and he knew people were unhappy, but it was like he just didn’t care.

    1. Lizabeth*

      It wasn’t that he didn’t care, it was he couldn’t process the instructions given and do it different since he was in a rut/habit on how to do things. A lifetime of doing stuff a certain way isn’t going to change overnight or in the next hour. It would take a great deal of strength of character to do the work to change long-time habits (including visiting a therapist). Some people aren’t capable of doing that and should be moved along in their career to work somewhere else if it isn’t working out.

      I’m just now figuring that out with the resident office squawker.

      1. fposte*

        I think that’s a really good point, and it’s one that I feel doesn’t get enough attention generally. Mostly we behave the way we’re used to behaving. I hear this sometimes when people complain that nobody’s reading signs, when the signs are telling people not to follow their usual behavior when it comes to opening a door, or walking down a sidewalk, or something common. But we do these things every day without reading signs, and that matters more than the signs.

        I think “couldn’t” might be a little drastic, but it’s kind of like the fact that many of us aren’t people who eat five servings of fruit and vegetables and exercise an hour a day even though we’ve been told we should be. It’s really hard to change your way of being, whether at work or at home.

        1. Allison*

          I drive on the highway for a short stretch of my commute, and there’s a major exit just before where I get off. For some reason, they decided to make the right lane approaching that exit “exit” only, but there are plenty of people who still drive in the right lane with no intention of getting off the highway, and try to merge with continuing traffic after the exit, despite ALL the signs saying it’s exit only. Are these people just unable to change their long-ingrained commuting habits or is it okay for me to call them jerks?

          1. Lizabeth*

            Those are jerks…call the local police and complain about it, particularly if it happens often. Maybe they’ll target that area and write tickets (GRIN)

            1. Allison*

              I did see a state trooper stopped right after the exit yesterday. Silly me, I thought they were trying to block people from doing it, but no, they’d just pulled someone over.

          2. Beancounter in Texas*

            I think it takes time to modify one’s habits, but they’re still being jerks by trying to merge back onto the freeway at the last minute. It sucks when you find yourself going a direction you didn’t intend, but the polite thing to do is suck it and circle back.

            1. Allison*

              I mean, I get it, if you’re in the habit of driving in the right lane past the exit, it’s a change, but we had weeks of warning! We knew it was about to change! There are signs everywhere! I don’t get how it hasn’t registered with these people, they haven’t seen the signs and gone “oh, well I guess I’ll need to move over one lane” and start using the center right lane.

              And I agree. It sucks when you realize you’re in the wrong lane, but when it happens and it’s too late for you to change lanes, you take the turn and figure it out.

              1. fposte*

                How about “they’re understandable jerks” :-)?

                One weird thing about driving–and I’m sure there are cognitive studies on this–is how much the destination goal overshadows stuff like safety. Missing your exit is worth killing to avoid. It’s like the heavy metal version of watching whatever’s on because turning the TV off would be such a huge effort.

          3. Argh!*

            No, they are hoping the right lane will move faster so they can butt into the next lane over and get to work 10 seconds sooner.

      2. Amber Rose*

        That’s a good point, but he was given 4 months, and was supposedly successful in a similar role at his previous company.

  12. Suzanne*

    My kids had a teacher in middle school who, they will tell you, in their entire PK through Master’s Degree academic careers was the worst teacher they ever had. She, however, was always telling parents how well she connected with those middle schoolers, how she understood what they needed in a teacher, and how well she was able to key in on their strengths. It was really pretty sad. She had no clue she was that bad! She finally quit after yet another altercation with a disgruntled parent. I assume the principal had spoken to her, but it never sank in.

    It was also a good lesson to me to take a good, hard look at how I was doing at work…

    1. Ruth*

      Oh my! I had this problem at university recently, a tutor who was a very nice person, but really not good at teaching anything relevant, doing any admin, explaining assignments and expectations, having an actual syllabus. She wasted loads of time on off-topic chats and introducing ourselves multiple times. I kinda put up with it and just read books at home, but was really surprised when half-way through she told us she took a teaching-only post (without research), because teaching was her passion and she was really good at it….umm ok, are you sure?

  13. DebbieDebbieDebbie*

    Those darn social norms keep stopping me from yelling “You stink!” to a couple of people at work….

    1. Windchime*

      That sometimes just sounds like it would be such an awesome thing to do. I used to want to stand up and yell, “SHUT UP!!!” at work when people would just stand around and talk all day. Unfortunately, that is frowned on at my workplace so I just put on my headphones instead.

    2. Forener*

      My boss farts whenever he needs to or wants to. I can’t tell which. He farts when I’m talking to him, when he’s talking, when he’s standing at the copier, heading a staff meeting, getting coffee, walking down the hall… And the worst part is that he doesn’t apologize or act ashamed or embarrassed. It’s so gross.

      One day he was standing next to me as I sat at my desk and he let it rip. It stank. Without embarrassment or comment, I opened my drawer and sprayed air freshener over my head. I don’t think he understood why or even cared why I did that.

      1. Fart face*

        I have IBS, and sometimes farting just happens, particularly if I’m walking to the toilet anyway. It just sneaks out and there’s basically nothing I can really do about it at that point. I refuse to act ashamed or embarrassed because I’d spend way too much time being ashamed or embarrassed. Apologising is pointless because these are mostly small amount of gas, and it would delay trip to the loo and potentially lead to more farts.

  14. ThursdaysGeek*

    And then we have our self-assessments to fill out. In previous jobs, I’ve had people who I know do worse work than me assess themselves higher, and get the corresponding better results. But, with no feedback, maybe they are doing a better job in ways I don’t know. Am I too harsh on myself in the self-assessment? Too lenient? The results matter, but I don’t know where I really am, only where I think I am.

    1. Sharon*

      Yeah, I hate self assessments because after I write them, my manager never discusses them with me. I’ve had to do them in several companies now, and I don’t see the benefit. I can never tell if the manager uses them to influence his/her own assessment of me, or if he/she disagrees with my assessment of myself. For all I know they’re instantly thrown away.

    2. Beancounter in Texas*

      I hated them because the first time I did it, I was actually honest with how well I believed I was performing and where I could use improvements. My boss suggested that I knock myself down a point or two on my strengths and really made my overall performance seem right at average or below average. So the next year, I overstated my strengths and understated my weaknesses, my boss asked me to come down a point or two on my strengths again. I ended up right above where I honestly believe I was performing (if only because my weaknesses were never adjusted to their true value, as I expected). Didn’t seem to matter in the end because I received the same percentage of a raise as the year before, when I didn’t appear to perform as well. After that, I figured I’d just rate myself as average and call it a day.

  15. Malissa*

    Timely article. I am dealing with this very issue. I gave up trying to reason and explain to a coworker why I need what I need from him. I’ve demanded it, I’ve asked I’ve tried to get him to see the logic behind the request. He thinks what he is doing is fine. His manager got a detailed email about all the ways he isn’t doing fine and the time I’m spending cleaning up after him. Hopefully things will improve.

    1. Argh!*

      I feel your pain. I have had to spell things out and put my foot down with a few people, but one in particular is seemingly uncoachable. One thing I’m trying very hard to stop doing is cleanup. When it’s not an urgent customer-based issue, I turn it back to the person who screwed up. He does expect me to clean it up, but I think it’s fair for him to correct his own mistakes. Since his self-image is so inflated, saying things like “Other people shouldn’t have to do your job for you” is my latest tactic. It works sometimes.

    2. Willow*

      If he’s in a protected class, don’t expect things will change. I have an incompetent coworker who is in a protected class and clearly is being protected by the boss because of said class. Despite all the hours I have spent cleaning up after his screwups, and telling my boss every time why I am staying late, he is still there.

  16. F.*

    When I worked at Very Large Dysfunctional Corporation, we had many incompetent employees who were of various “protected” classes. It was impossible to get rid of them due to the threat of an EEOC lawsuit. We had a file clerk in the Legal Dept. who spent the entire day walking around the building and talking to her friends. Filing was never done or done wrong. Another person (ostensibly a low level manager!) could ALWAYS be found chatting outside in the smoking area. Again, a member of a protected class. As far as I know, they are both still there. Perhaps there is room in the budget at Very Large Dysfunctional Corporations for hiring enough competent employees to cover for/clean up after the incompetent ones, but not at a small company. Of course, at Small Company, we DO have the owner’s nephew…

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That’s about lazy and inept management. You can certainly get rid of incompetent employees regardless of any protected class they might be in (actually, we’re all in protected classes; you can’t make employment decisions based on race, gender, religion, national origin — and we all have those). The way you do it is by clearly and diligently documenting, warning the person, and then firing them if they don’t improve. Yes, a pissed off employee might sue, but if you’ve done your job well, you’ll probably win — and the cost of keeping them on is more than the small risk of a lawsuit is likely to be.

      1. Lia*

        You are definitely correct, Alison! I personally witnessed the firing, at a state agency, of a UNION employee who was a protected class (and multiple protected classes, at that). Employee had screwed up multiple times, in very public ways (think “major PR snafu” types of issues). The boss documented absolutely everything, followed the policies, issued warnings, a PIP, and the employee DID get fired. It really didn’t take that long, either — about 6-8 months from the first egregious offense that led to the documentation beginning.
        Was that typical? No way, but that supervisor was bound and determined that her area wasn’t going to have anyone on staff who couldn’t do their jobs.

      2. Argh!*

        Rather than cost-benefit, it’s cost-cost analysis. Does it cost the company more to leave the barnacles on the boat or risk a costly lawsuit? Even if you prevail you still spend a lot of money on the legal challenge.

        1. F.*

          This is exactly why the malingerers were never fired. Besides, they had diversity quotas to meet. These quotas were quite real and were by department. We were told when we had to make a “minority” hire and were forced to do so regardless of the person’s qualifications. I beg to differ with AAM: A Caucasian, 35-year-old, American, heterosexual male who practices no religion and has no disability is NOT protected.

          1. Tara*

            A Caucasian 35-year-old American heterosexual male with no religion and no disability CANNOT be fired because he is Caucasian (which doesn’t actually mean white, but that’s a tangent), because he is 35, because he is American, because he is heterosexual, because he is male, or because of his lack of disability and religion. Therefore, he is protected in the exact same way a black jewish lesbian in a wheelchair is protected; from being mistreated based on aspects of identity.

          2. Ask a Manager* Post author

            What Tara said is correct. The law doesn’t protect particular races, sexes, religions, etc. It prevents discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, etc. That means that you cannot fire someone for being white, being male, being an atheist, etc. You cannot fire someone because of their sex, race, religion, etc. regardless of what category of those things they fall in.

      3. Rebecca*

        I had an employee file a complaint with the EEOC (not against me, it was against the company and my own boss). She had been doing a subpar job and was moved into a different position. Not a demotion (even though she saw it that way), it was actually a lateral move. The EEOC did not side with her, they basically told her she was lucky to still have a job. So the threat of an EEOC complaint or lawsuit doesn’t mean anything will come of it.

  17. NavyLT*

    “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself…”

    My experience has been that in many cases people who aren’t good at their jobs not only don’t realize it, but they don’t understand why they’re being asked to do things differently (i.e., to improve). Then they end up resenting being told that they’re poor performers.

    “…but talent instantly recognizes genius.”

    People who are good at their jobs, on the other hand, tend to realize that there are always opportunities to grow and improve. Vague feedback doesn’t do them any favors, either.

    1. Argh!*

      You have to ask the incompetents to humor you! “Please, do it for me — check for mistakes before you send your report to the customer. I know I’m a quirky picky boss, but it would make me happy so do it for me”

  18. Winston*

    I would say that not recognizing your inability is necessary to the definition of incompetence. I am unable to perform surgery, fly a plane, or provide professional advice on a contract. The reason you wouldn’t call me an incompetent surgeon, an incompetent pilot, or an incompetent lawyer is that I know that I shouldn’t be doing these things.

    1. Beancounter in Texas*


      “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” ~ Socrates

      I’ve also seen it written “Knowledge is not only knowing what you know, but knowing what you don’t know.”

    2. James M.*

      But someone can be competent (in a certain context, like their job) without being aware of their ability. I think ability and awareness are not the only factors in separating competence from incompetence; intent plays a role too. Someone truly incompetent would have to intentionally seek out situations they are unfit for. Knowing you’re unable to perform surgery may have less to do with being an incompetent surgeon than actively seeking to perform surgery.

      Minister of Snark’s post below is an interesting example and I think it qualifies as true incompetence.

  19. Minister of Snark*

    I had a “just graduated” coworker like this. Despite being a brand new hire, he wanted to run with the “big dogs” right out of the gate. He complained about any “beginner work” he was assigned and pushed for the high-profile assignments that would get him prestige, attention and the opportunity to schmooze with “movers and shakers.” The problem? He was campaigning HARD for the sort of assignments being given to people who had worked for the company for ten years. You had to work your way up the chain before getting these assignments. Plus, he could barely handle the beginner assignments he was being given. He regularly made very basic errors that would have spelled disaster if he’d been allowed to handle the higher profile assignments. But he refused to be corrected and wouldn’t listen when we tried to explain that he wouldn’t be able to handle the higher profile assignments until he grasped basic skills.

    He didn’t last long.

    1. afiendishthingy*

      Yeah, I have a recent grad employee who has been working in this field for about a year. She has recently told us that she is leaving if she doesn’t get promoted to Lead Spoutmaker the next time a position opens up (expected to happen in the next month or so) and that her current position isn’t “glamorous”. Putting aside that my position is a couple steps above hers and is ALSO not “glamorous,” her entitled attitude is pretty much guaranteeing she won’t get the promotion. She was one of two finalists for a Lead position a few months back when there was an opening, and we went with the other candidate mostly because we had concerns that Glamorous would be too arrogant to be very trainable. She’s smart and she’s decent at her current position, but she’s burning serious bridges acting her like the entry level work is beneath her.

    2. Argh!*

      “He regularly made very basic errors”

      I have one of these and since I inherited him after he’d been in the position for many years, it’s hard to make my displeasure official. I have been coaching and micromanaging for error detection. It’s exhausting because he just doesn’t see that errors are a bad thing and that it’s his responsibility to catch them, not customers.

  20. AcidMeFlux*

    The common theme among loons like this is THEY DON’T LISTEN. Either they don’t want to or they really can’t (have never been taught how) or don’t even know what listening means….say it, say it again, say it in a meeting with a pre-printed and delivered agenda, say it in the follow up meeting, say it when they get fired. Like the graceful arc of a paper airplane, it just sails right over their head.

    1. Lizabeth (call me hop along)*

      They don’t listen because of all the white noise going on in their brain telling them other stuff and that’s where their focus is.

  21. Charityb*

    I think this makes a lot of sense. For me, a lot of what goes into “competence” isn’t just skill but conscientiousness. Someone who has a small amount of anxiety about their performance (not insecurity, but something a bit more than blithe arrogance) is going to take the extra time to go over things again to make sure that they’re ready and might ask more questions and double-check more things.

    A lot of times, the “incompetent” workers are the ones who really don’t do these things; they’re not necessarily arrogant, but they lack attention to detail and focus more on getting their work done and less on getting it done right.

  22. Argh!*

    I once supervised someone who was adequate and rather average in performance, who thought she was fabulous. When she complained about her satisfactory performance evaluation, she pointed to the notoriously poor performer in another workgroup for comparison. (He has a mental illness, as it turned out) I said yes, if you are head and shoulders above him that makes you satisfactory. Fortunately, I had a tool that spelled out what unsatisfactory, satisfactory and stellar looked like in each category. When we went through it item by item she agreed. The next year she stepped it up and was above average in most categories and stellar in one or two.

  23. Willow Sunstar*

    What if you can’t be explicit with them because you’re their coworker and they are being protected by the boss? I’ve tried talking to my boss about the incompetent coworker before. This guy has displayed signs of mental problems, such as staling me on the job, which may well be causing his incompetence. I’m all for equal opportunity, but shouldn’t people be able to do the job they are hired for, especially a year into it? I don’t think he checked the “needs assistance” box, as he has not been given much in the way of assistance by the boss.

    I would leave my job because of said incompetent coworker if I could, but I cannot. I’ve started looking internally, but so far, no luck.

  24. KE*

    Another implication: If you are managing someone with technical/subject matter expertise that you don’t share, it is so easy to underestimate difficulties and time requirements for them to do their tasks. Because it seems quick and easy when you’re thinking of the result, right? If you’re directly managing the experts, you can talk with them about time/difficulty. But if you are a few levels up (not that I am), it would be easy to blow. Reminds me of Richard Feynman going to NASA after the Challenger disaster: all the hands-on engineers estimated failure likelihood of 1 in 100, but the bigwigs estimated it as astronomically unlikely (sorry Feynman fans, pulling this from my faulty memory!)

  25. PlainJane*

    This is implicit in most of the comments above, but humility often seems to be a marker of competence and even excellence. Humble people try harder and are open to learning and improving, because they don’t think they’re already the greatest employee in the history of great employees. One becomes great through continuous learning and improvement, so the humble get better and better.

  26. brownblack*

    I have experienced this again and again and again. Incompetent people have NO idea they are causing other people problems. Meanwhile, in my current job I have been having near-panic attacks lately because I feel so overwhelmed and incompetent but then I did my annual review 2 weeks ago and my boss essentially said I’m awesome and the sky’s the limit.

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