Reading time: 6 pages, 2,454 words, 6 to 10 minutes.
Updated July 24, 2017 with ‘Excuses’ and ‘Fast-talkers’
Incompetent people develop coping strategies and have characteristics that enable you identify them. Incompetent people can be detrimental to you, your health and your wealth so it’s in your best interest to identify them. If the garbage collector is incompetent, it may be annoying, but it’s probably not life threatening. However, if your doctor, dentist, home builder or your accountant is incompetent it can harm you or land you in jail so it pays to be able to identify incompetent people.
I was surprised how little information is available on incompetent people. I searched the internet and found many posts and sites about organizational and political incompetence as well as incompetent people within organizations with the greatest number involving business, leadership, management, medical, teaching and the military.
However, I found nothing about the incompetent people you’re likely to encounter in everyday life. So, this will rely on my own admittedly limited experience. If you know other coping strategies or characteristics of incompetent people, feel free to leave a comment below.
Question: Do incompetent people know they’re incompetent?
Answer: No, of course not; otherwise they wouldn’t be incompetent.
Incompetence – incompetent people do not understand how incompetent they are because the factors that make them incompetent make them unable to understand their shortcomings. Psychologists call this the Arrogance of Ignorance.
“The problem with incompetence is its inability to recognize itself.”
– Orrin Woodward, LIFE
Let’s look at this from another perspective. Self-deception is a uniquely human characteristic. Incompetent people don’t realize they’re incompetent and even if they did they’re unlikely to admit it to themselves or others. However, they DO know that throughout life, they are often scolded for what they say or do. Consequently, to avoid being reprimanded, they develop one or more coping strategies to avoid getting shit for their words and actions.
Question: is incompetence the same as stupid?
Answer: No, not necessarily although it can be. A doctor, dentist or engineer is unlikely to get a degree if they’re stupid. Incompetent people can register high on an intelligence scale and can successfully pass exams.
Question: so what is incompetence?
Answer: it is an inability or lack of skill to perform adequately. So, incompetence is measured by results or performance not intelligence. Incompetent people can be quite charming and intelligent, but their perceptions can be out of kilter and how they perform can be disastrous. Incompetence can result from lack of organizational abilities, mental laziness, lack of self-awareness; they may have book learning but no practical experience, they may be in the wrong line of work, numerous other reasons or any combination of these.
Below are some of the coping strategies used by incompetent people. If you see people doing these things, it’s not guaranteed that they’re incompetent, but you should be wary and very careful with these people until you know for sure because their lack of competence could hurt you.
If they have two or more of the following characteristics, WATCH OUT!
Really, Really, Really NICE – incompetent people sometimes use ‘nice’ as a coping strategy. They think that if they really, really, really nice then the teacher will be more likely to forgive them or the boss will be reluctant to fire them.
This is a dangerously effective coping strategy because most of us like nice people and we would rather deal with nice people than cranky ones.
In fact, we are more likely to forgive really, really, really nice people for their incompetence than we are to forgive cranky people. After all, this is why incompetent people adopt ‘nice’ as a strategy; it works. At least, it works for a while and then after a time we get fed up with their constant screw-ups and even their ‘niceness’ is no longer enough to compensate for their perpetual incompetence.
Invisibility – incompetent people sometimes try to make themselves invisible. They sit at the back of the class or the back of the meeting room hoping they aren’t noticed and called upon. Also, they keep quiet and don’t raise their hands or volunteer anything because when they do their incompetence becomes evident for all to see.
Invisibility is also a dangerously effective coping strategy because we cannot see them. Since they’re invisible, they’re difficult to identify.
When I walk into a crowded room, I’ll stop, smile and look around the room. Then, I’ll have a second look and try to identify the people I did NOT notice the first time. Chances are, these ‘wall-flowers’ are trying to be invisible for a reason. One reason may be shyness (not a crime), but another reason might be incompetence.
Mumbling – sometimes incompetent people mumble. This is a form of ‘sound invisibility’. Fortunately, mumbling is easy to identify. When they mumble, they cannot be understood. So, you ask them to repeat what they said and you get more “mumble, mumble”.
The mumbler hopes you give up and go away. Failing that, they hope you fill in the blanks yourself. That way they cannot be pinned down. If they don’t say anything they cannot be proven wrong. “Well, mumble, mumble, maybe mumble, mumble, misunderstood mumble, mumble what I said.”
Excuses – Beware anyone with never-ending excuses. Incompetent people spend a lifetime developing the ability to create excuses, some of which can be very creative. A lot of excuses can be a warning sign.
Fast-talkers – Not every incompetent person is a fast-talker, but this could also be a warning sign. They talk fast because they fear you’ll find out that they’re incompetent. They never give your brain time to analyze what they’re saying because they talk so fast, you can’t engage your critical thinking skills. You can’t get a word in edgewise and by the time you do, you’ve forgotten what you wanted to say. Like most characteristics, they decrease the amount of shit they get so, being a successful strategy, they adopt them.
Never wrong – Beware of people who always make excuses and never accept responsibility for their mistakes. Mentarch writes, “Incompetents will do and say anything to defend themselves … including disassembling, obfuscating, lying and blaming others … they misrepresent, they use decoy arguments and make ad hominem attacks.”
I worked with a fellow for decades who never once admitted to making a mistake. He had endless excuses and it was always someone else’s fault. Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to realize he was incompetent. The final straw was when he screwed up in a big way and my boss asked me to take the blame so the incompetent idiot wouldn’t look bad to an important client. Sometime later, the client told me that he knew I had ‘fallen on my own sword’ to protect the idiot. We eventually forced the incompetent into early retirement. Good riddance!
Always right – this is the flip side of ‘Never Wrong’ above. One characteristic of people who think they’re always right is their inability to listen. They’re like Google that starts giving answers before you’ve finished typing.
At the risk of being politically incorrect (as if I care!) it seems more women than men fall into this category. Perhaps it is women’s propensity to gullibility where once they learn something they think they know it all. Or, perhaps it’s the Feminist’s cult of perpetual victimhood, their belief that their shit doesn’t stink and all men are a**holes. It’s hard to say.
Many years ago, one of the best doctors I ever had was female. One reason was she listened. Unfortunately, I moved away. Nowadays, listening skills seem to have deteriorated considerably.
I patronized the same optometrist for almost 25 years. I change glasses about every two years and, although expensive, they always gave me good service. Then the two old guys retired and the business was taken over by two young ladies. The third last time I bought glasses, I told the young ladies I need lenses for viewing a computer screen at the office. They gave me lenses with a very narrow field of view so I had to keep moving my head from side to side to read the screen. I returned the glasses.
“Oh, you need screen lenses.”
“Lenses designed with a wide field of view for a computer screen.”
“Yes, that’s what I said the first time”
They gave me the right lenses. The second last time I bought new glasses, I gently reminded them of the first screw-up and repeated (several times) that I need a wide field of view for reading a computer screen. They screwed up again with a narrow field of views and after some argument (NEVER, ever argue with a customer even if they’re wrong) they again reluctantly changed to the proper lenses.
The last time, even though I reminded them of the first two screw-ups and repeated I needed wide field of view for reading a computer screen MANY times, they again gave me the wrong lenses. When I returned, they argued a LOT and said “Oh, you’ll get used to them. Try them for a couple days.” I tried. A couple days later I brought them back and they said, “Oh Nikon doesn’t make screen lenses anymore.”
Why couldn’t they tell me that the first time? Is it because I’m a male and couldn’t understand such a difficult technical word like, “No”?
I told them “Listen sisters, three strikes, you’re out. You’re fired and I’m telling everyone I know what lousy service you give.” I walked out and found a better optometrist; one who listens. He’s male.
Beware of people, especially women who ‘know it all’. They’re dangerous. This is supported by a preponderance of jokes.
“Who needs Google? My wife knows everything.”
“For Sale: Encyclopedia set. Not needed. My new bride knows it all.”
Negative about others – Some people, in order to compensate for their incompetence, try to drag other people down with constant negative comments so they look better in comparison. No matter what you tell this type of person, no matter how positive it is, they’ll bend and twist it out of shape. They could make Mother Theresa look like Adolph Hitler. Beware; if a person does this about others behind their back, they are also likely to do it to you behind your back. Everything you say WILL be used against you.
Sometimes these people can be identified by what they laugh at. If the only time they laugh is at someone else’s mistakes, pain or tragedy then you may be dealing with one of these people. They’re constantly searching for the negative and take great delight in finding it in others.
Avoidance – Some incompetent people bend over backwards to avoid doing something. They know that whenever they do something they get shit. To avoid getting shit, they do nothing. It’s easier to make excuses for doing nothing than justify their mistakes. If only they were half as creative in doing what they’re supposed to do as they are with their excuses they’d be incredibly competent. But, of course, they’re not which is why it’s less painful for them to do nothing and get a little shit than do something, screw it up and get a lot of shit.
Sticking their noses into everyone else’s business – Some incompetent people, unable to do their own jobs compensate by telling other people how to do their jobs. They try to make themselves look good by appearing to be busy ‘improving things’ and thus avoid revealing their inability doing their own jobs.
Over-confidence – although this is not a coping strategy, it may be a sign of someone who believes they’re better than they really are. We live in a rapidly changing world that requires constantly upgrading our skills. Overconfident people may be loath to improve because they think too highly of themselves.
As well, overconfident people may think they don’t need anyone else’s input so they try do things themselves rather than ask for the opinions of others. Never underestimate the value of teamwork. Two heads are better than one and three better than two. It takes bravery to admit you don’t know everything.
Question: aside from identifying incompetent people by the characteristics listed above, is there anything else you can do before you’re able to determine whether someone is competent or not?
Answer: Yes, there is. Most people are trusting and they assume someone is competent until proven otherwise. However, you must remember that the average person is, well … average. This means half of all people are above average and half are below average. So, the odds are only 50/50 that someone is above average. Those are not good odds upon which to stake your health, wealth or life.
Again, if we’re talking about the garbage collector, it’s no big deal. However, if you’re about to have brain surgery, shouldn’t you do some homework first and determine whether the surgeon is competent or not? Maybe he’s below average?
It is much more effective to assume people are NOT competent? Why? Because if you assume incompetence, you’re going to be a lot more likely to engage your critical thinking skills than if you assume competence.
As well, if you assume incompetence, you’ll prepare for it. You’ll ask for a draft or outline or a brief meeting before the deadline to ensure that person is on the right track rather than be blind-sided at the last minute. Talking to a stranger on the phone, you’ll assume they will fail to deliver as promised so you’ll ask for their name and verify the phone number thus giving them more incentive to do what you asked. It’s also smart to request an interim phone call to ensure you haven’t been put on the backburner and that everything is on track. And, if they don’t call you; call them.
It’s also wise to assume the other person assumes you are incompetent unless you have a track record with them proving your competence. If nothing else, it keeps you on your toes and at the top of your game. If they ask you to send an email to someone else, copy them so they can see you’ve done as requested. Always assume the other person assumes you’re incompetent until you prove otherwise and do the same with them.
Sometimes I work on lengthy projects where I might not be expected to contact the client for a long time. Yet, I will contact them at least once a day even to tell them nothing. Seriously! “Hi, I’m calling to tell you absolutely nothing except I’m still working on it and haven’t forgotten about you.” I have NEVER had a negative response to that. Often they’ll laugh. The longer you go without contacting them, the more they worry they might have been put on the backburner. Contacting them and telling them nothing assuages that concern.
Question: do incompetent people recognise other incompetent people?
Answer: probably not. One is more likely to recognize incompetence if it is below the perceiver’s level of competence. I have no competence in brain surgery. This makes me an incompetent brain surgeon and less likely to recognize a brain surgeon’s incompetence.
So, will I assume, the surgeon is incompetent? You better believe it. Will I do a lot of homework, research and ask a lot of questions? You know it because unlike having my garbage picked up, my life depends on a competent brain surgeon as well as a lot of other people.
October 11, 2014
Updated October 19, 2014
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