A behavior that has long existed in marriages and other relationships is garnering greater attention for how it manifests in workplaces. It’s known as “weaponized incompetence.”
This refers to when someone pretends to be bad at a task or takes no initiative to get better at it — leaving the responsibility to someone else.
In households, this can look like a partner handing off laundry, cooking or dishwashing to the other because they claim they are worse at it or unable to do that task. In workplaces, it often happens when someone fails to learn certain technology platforms and their functions and consistently palms them off on a colleague.
And this tendency to use (usually younger) coworkers as a go-to for fixing tech issues or papering over other basic tech knowledge gaps, is causing frustration among some. And many have taken to TikTok and other social media platforms to vent about it.
One TikTok creator with the username “worklifeimbalance” acts out these scenes, in a video where she acts as a manager who can’t properly format a presentation while writing comments and edits on an older version of the slides.
Another popular trope on TikTok are videos of creators lamenting that their older bosses with much higher salaries often need help converting documents into PDFs.
This behavior isn’t harmless, experts say, and can point to a disconnect between employees and management and worsen burnout among those burdened with extra work without recognition.
“We can feel taken advantage of, disrespected, it can be exhausting, tiring and stressful,” said Cassandra Fallon, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Thriveworks. “It’s hard to do your own job, much less that of other people,” she said.
Technology skills gaps are contributing to this behavior in the workplace and changing the nature of it, even as Gen Z workers aren’t as tech-savvy as their colleagues probably think. One in five 18 to 29 year olds polled in a survey from HP including over 10,000 respondents said they felt judged when experiencing technical issues, compared to only one in 25 for those over 40 years of age.
Older workers also expressed less hesitance participating in meetings even if their technical skills may cause a disruption, than younger workers, that survey found.
“This has been a tactic used in the workplace for some time, but with awareness built around it with social media, it’s been really neat to see there’s a term for it now which makes it more tangible,” said Fallon.
Tips for employees
What can employees and employers do to mitigate this and make everyone just do their own jobs?For employees experiencing this behavior with colleagues, “it’s difficult to address because it can be very abstract,” Fallon said.
Trust your gut if you feel you’re shouldering more of a colleague’s work than you should, and have documentation and specific examples rather than bringing up the issue after a specific incident, she said.
After that, having direct, upfront conversations is key. Assuming the best in people is also powerful and often helps them feel more comfortable and safer to admit mistakes, she said.
One way to start a conversation around weaponized incompetence behaviors with a colleague may be to tell them “Hey, I’m doing this often for you, is there anything I can do to help you learn how to do it well?” she said.
Another phrase that could work: “I really want to make sure that you are empowered to do what you need to without needing me to help.”
Tips for employers
Employers could help mitigate this behavior with a few other approaches.
First they should ensure workers have proper training on the technology they are using, even if it’s on something relatively minor, said Jennifer Chang, HR knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management.
“Even if it’s just converting a Word doc into a PDF, that might even just be a simple ‘let’s sit down for 15 minutes and go over just the nuts and bolts of this procedure,’” Chang said.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be a full on, like a training session,” she said.
Employers should also lead by example, and “set an expectation that everyone is responsible for their own work while kind of managing to those expectations, allowing that to be part of the performance assessment process.”
Ultimately though “it’s hard to combat human nature,” she said. “I think it’s just an age-old problem.”
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