21 expert ways to deal with incompetent coworkers

Updated on August 22, 2023
How to deal with incompetent coworkers

Encountering incompetent coworkers can be a challenging and frustrating experience. It's not uncommon to find ourselves working alongside colleagues who struggle to meet expectations, negatively impacting the team's overall performance.

In today's highly competitive work environment, it's crucial to learn effective strategies for handling incompetence in the workplace.

As an experienced project manager for an international tech company, I have encountered incompetent hires countless times.

In this article, I will teach you practical and proven techniques to manage and collaborate with coworkers who may be deemed incompetent at work.

By doing so, you'll be better equipped to maintain a healthy and productive work environment, even when faced with challenging situations.

So, let's dive into the world of workplace dynamics and discover how to navigate the complex landscape of incompetence at work, fostering professional growth and harmonious relationships with your colleagues.

Signs of an incompetent employee

What are some examples of incompetence at work

It's important to remember that identifying incompetence is the first step toward addressing the issue.

By understanding the signs of an incompetent employee, managers and colleagues can take action to help improve their performance, foster personal growth, and create a more harmonious and efficient work environment.

So here is how to spot an incompetent employee.

1. Low-quality work

A pattern of producing substandard results can indicate incompetence.

These employees may lack attention to detail, produce work that does not meet established standards, or require excessive supervision to complete tasks correctly.

2. Lack of accountability

Incompetent employees often have a difficult time taking responsibility for their mistakes or shortcomings.

They may place the blame on external factors or other coworkers, rather than acknowledging their own role in the problem.

3. Poor problem-solving skills

An inability to think critically and devise solutions to challenges is a hallmark of incompetence. Such employees may struggle to analyze situations and make informed decisions, leading to suboptimal outcomes.

4. Inability to adapt

A rapidly changing work environment requires adaptability and a willingness to learn. Incompetent workers often resist change, clinging to outdated methods and failing to stay current with industry trends or new technologies.

5. Disorganization and missed deadlines

Incompetent employees may consistently fail to manage their time and tasks efficiently. They may struggle with organization, prioritization, and meeting deadlines, negatively impacting the team's performance.

6. Poor communication skills

Incompetent workers may struggle to communicate effectively with their colleagues, superiors, or clients. This can lead to misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and a lack of collaboration within the team.

7. Resistance to feedback

A refusal to accept constructive criticism or an unwillingness to learn from mistakes can be signs of incompetence.

Employees who exhibit this trait may be closed off to personal growth and improvement, hindering their potential and performance.

Examples of incompetence at work

Before we delve into what can be done about coworkers who are incompetent, it would be best to have a clear understanding of what “incompetence at work” actually means because this is important for reasons that will become obvious to you in a moment.

There are 3 levels of incompetence at work.

1. Lack of essential knowledge and skills

First, we examine the meaning of the word “incompetence” itself. Pretty much any dictionary would say that this is “inability to do something successfully”.

When we place this definition in the context of a work environment, we would be examining a person or people who can not do their job adequately.

Therefore, the most obvious example of incompetence at work would be a lack of essential knowledge and skills that are necessary for performing one’s duties.

While this is obvious, there is another nuance that we should be aware of. And it comes down to this: working and successfully performing one’s duties at work has a willingness element to it.

2. Unwillingness to work optimally

People who work legally for a company/organization do so willingly.

Therefore, the lack of willingness to work or to carry out work-related duties according to desired standards is another form of incompetence at work. Such examples include:

  • Laziness at work
  • Not performing tasks/duties diligently
  • Unwillingness to communicate and cooperate
  • Lack of desire to learn and improve
  • Problematic behavior (gossiping, harassment)
  • Conscious sabotaging of projects/work environment

3. The Dunning-Kruger effect

Unfortunately, the dragon that you are fighting has a third head. There is another type of work incompetence that stems from a lack of self-awareness, or rather the ability to recognize one's own lack of knowledge and understanding.

In psychology, this type of incompetence is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect – it occurs when people overestimate their knowledge/abilities in a certain field, despite lacking the essential knowledge necessary to successfully navigate it. Examples of this include:

  • Managers/leaders who make poor decisions
  • Giving unreasonable/poorly judged orders
  • Making poor project management decisions
  • Micromanaging coworkers
  • Failure to analyze a situation properly

How to deal with an incompetent coworker

signs of an incompetent employee

When faced with the challenge of dealing with incompetent coworkers, it's essential to approach the situation with empathy, understanding, and personal responsibility.

Here are 11 tips to help you navigate these situations while maintaining a positive and productive work environment.

1. Embrace individual responsibility

Recognize your role in the situation and focus on the aspects you can control, rather than blaming others.

This proactive approach allows you to address the issue effectively and fosters personal growth.

2. Seek understanding

Endeavor to understand the underlying causes of your coworker's incompetence.

Their struggles may stem from personal issues, lack of training, or other factors that could be addressed with support and guidance.

3. Communicate effectively

Address any concerns or issues with your coworker in a respectful and direct manner. Focus on the problem at hand and avoid personal attacks or generalizations.

Clear communication is key to resolving conflicts and fostering mutual understanding.

4. Offer assistance

If appropriate, extend a helping hand to your coworker, demonstrating a willingness to collaborate and support their growth.

This gesture can foster a more positive work environment and may help them overcome obstacles and improve their skills.

5. Set boundaries

Establish and maintain healthy boundaries with your coworker, ensuring that their incompetence does not negatively affect your well-being or workload.

Communicate your limits and expectations to maintain a balanced and productive relationship.

6. Focus on the bigger picture

When dealing with incompetent coworkers, remind yourself of the larger goals and objectives of your team or organization.

Concentrate on contributing positively to the overall mission, rather than becoming consumed by individual conflicts.

7. Use your problem-solving skills

Actively work towards solutions that address the issues surrounding your coworker's incompetence. This may involve collaborating with management, providing feedback, or exploring potential resources to help your coworker improve.

8. Maintain professionalism

Despite the challenges of dealing with coworkers who don't pull their weight, it's essential to maintain a professional demeanor.

Avoid engaging in gossip or negative behavior, as this can damage your reputation and workplace relationships.

9. Demand accountability

Promote a culture of accountability by setting clear expectations and holding both yourself and your coworker responsible for meeting them.

This can help foster a sense of ownership and responsibility for one's actions.

10. Escalate the issue

If necessary, communicate your concerns about an incompetent coworker to your supervisor or manager.

Provide specific examples and offer suggestions for improvement. Remember that it's part of their role to address performance issues and ensure a functional work environment.

11. Practice self-care

Dealing with incompetent coworkers can be emotionally taxing. Prioritize self-care by managing stress, setting aside time for relaxation, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

This will enable you to approach the situation with resilience and a clear mind.

How to work with incompetent coworkers

Finding ways to work and collaborate with incompetent coworkers can be a challenging but necessary part of maintaining a harmonious and efficient workplace.

Here are some innovative tips to help you navigate these situations, focusing on collaboration and improvement.

1. Be patient

Developing new skills or overcoming personal challenges takes time.

Exercise patience and understanding when working with poor-performing coworkers, recognizing that progress may be gradual.

2. Adapt your communication style

Adjust your communication approach to meet the needs of your colleagues, ensuring that your message is effectively received. This may involve simplifying complex concepts or using visual aids to clarify ideas.

3. Provide constructive feedback

Offer specific and actionable feedback that helps your coworker recognize areas for improvement. Present your observations in a respectful and non-confrontational manner, focusing on their potential for growth.

4. Prioritize collaboration

Encourage teamwork and cooperation among team members. Pairing low-performing coworkers with more experienced colleagues can provide valuable learning opportunities and promote a more cohesive work environment.

5. Establish common goals

To improve teamwork with low-performing coworkers, set shared objectives that align with your team's overall mission. This encourages collaboration and promotes a sense of unity, even among colleagues with varying skill levels.

6. Encourage skill development

Recommend resources, such as workshops, training programs, or mentorship opportunities, to help your unskilled colleagues enhance their abilities.

This not only benefits the individual but also contributes to the overall success of the team.

7. Delegate tasks strategically

When managing unproductive employees, assign tasks based on individual strengths and weaknesses. This approach maximizes efficiency and helps coworkers develop new skills or improve existing ones.

8. Encourage open communication

Foster an environment where team members feel comfortable discussing their concerns and ideas. This open dialogue can lead to innovative solutions and help address any issues related to incompetence or inefficiency.

9. Foster a growth mindset

Encourage a culture of continuous learning and improvement, both for yourself and your colleagues. This mindset can help transform inefficient colleagues into more competent and effective team members.

10. Celebrate progress and small victories

Recognize and celebrate progress, even if it's incremental. Acknowledging improvements can boost morale and motivate your coworker to continue refining their skills.

How to deal with lazy incompetent coworkers

lazy incompetent coworkers

Dealing with coworkers who don’t pull their weight at work can be extremely frustrating. It is definitely not conducive to a productive and harmonious work environment.

Not to mention that you might be filled with negative thoughts on how to get rid of incompetent coworkers which is never a good thing.

Unfortunately, you don’t have many options here so if you are wondering how do you expose an incompetent coworker, then here is how you can approach this.

  • Collect evidence – Document examples of their slacking at work in order to build your case.
  • Confront them – Speak to them. Either privately or in front of other colleagues. Use your supporting evidence to expose them.
  • Speak to your boss and HR – Take your supporting evidence and go directly to your boss/direct manager. Talk to an HR staff member as well if possible. Make your voice heard.

Taking action is an important step in dealing with lazy coworkers. In my experience, things don’t get better on their own.

Such people will slack every chance they get and do as little work as possible. It is also worth mentioning that you should be careful around such colleagues.

If they have questionable morale, then they wouldn't hesitate to throw you under the bus if it would mean saving their own skin.

It is very important to keep your direct manager in the loop and collect supporting evidence so that you can have grounds for termination if it comes to that point.

How to deal with nice but incompetent coworkers

You can deal with nice coworkers who are incompetent by offering them as much support as you can.

  • Have them go through additional training.
  • Provide them with useful materials and resources.
  • Speak to them about what key skills they lack and plan how they can obtain them.
  • Keep a close eye on their work and offer them daily feedback and improvement advice.

How do you expose an incompetent coworker?

Here’s how to expose an incompetent coworker in 3 simple steps:

  • Gather evidence to build your case – You can take pictures or screenshots of poorly performed tasks.
  • Talk to your colleagues – Speak to one or two of your colleagues. They probably have made the same observations but are keeping quiet.
  • Talk to your direct manager/HR – Involve your manager and members of HR as quickly as possible.

Hopefully, after all of this, your incompetent coworker will have to go through an evaluation by superiors and a decision will be made. See our extensive blog series for more information on dealing with difficult colleagues.

My experience working with an incompetent coworker

Let me tell you a story. This took place nearly a decade ago. As a young professional at an international tech company, I was excited to take on the responsibility of training a new employee.

I knew I had the skills and knowledge to guide them and help them succeed in their role.

When I met the new hire (let's call them Sam), I was immediately struck by their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn. They seemed genuinely excited to be part of the team and to contribute to our projects.

But during the initial training sessions, I started to notice some signs of incompetence. Sam struggled to grasp some of the technical concepts, and their attention to detail was lacking.

It was clear that they had a hard time keeping up with the fast-paced work environment and the complex tasks we were assigned.

However, Sam's eagerness to learn and willingness to ask questions showed promise.

I decided to adopt a patient and empathetic approach while training Sam. I recognized that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and it was my responsibility to help Sam overcome these challenges.

I focused on breaking down the more complex concepts into simpler, more digestible chunks, and used visual aids to help illustrate the ideas more clearly.

I also ensured that Sam had access to resources, such as documentation and online tutorials, to supplement the training sessions.

To encourage collaboration and skill development, I paired Sam with a more experienced colleague on a small project. This allowed Sam to learn from their coworker's expertise and gain hands-on experience in their role.

Throughout the process, I continually provided constructive feedback, highlighting areas for improvement and acknowledging Sam's progress.

Over time, I noticed that Sam's performance began to improve. Their understanding of the technical concepts deepened, and their attention to detail increased.

It was gratifying to see that my efforts to help Sam overcome their initial incompetence had paid off.

Although there were still areas for growth, I was proud of the progress they had made and the positive attitude they maintained throughout the process.

As a professional, I realized that training and working with an initially incompetent coworker had not only taught me valuable lessons in patience, empathy, and communication but also allowed me to witness the power of perseverance and a growth mindset.

In the end, I was grateful for the experience and the opportunity to help Sam grow and develop as a valuable member of our team.

Frequently asked questions about dealing with incompetent coworkers

What should I do when I notice a coworker is struggling with their tasks?

You should ask them if they need any help due to the decline in their performance. It is possible that the person is going through personal problems which are affecting their performance at work. They might require support or even time off work.

How can I communicate my concerns about a coworker's performance without sounding confrontational?

The best way to avoid a confrontation is to approach the matter in a non-judgmental way. Do your best to sound supportive and encouraging. Ask your coworker what kind of help and support they would need to improve their performance and see what you can do for them

How can I maintain my own productivity and well-being while working with an incompetent coworker?

The most important thing to do in this case is to focus on your own projects and duties. It's fine to provide your coworker with adequate constructive feedback and support but never resort to doing their work for them because this is counterproductive.

When should I escalate my concerns about an incompetent coworker to my supervisor or manager?

You should escalate the matter when you notice that the coworker in question is not making any effort to improve their performance. At this point, it is clear that they are slacking and not taking responsibility for their work.

How can I provide constructive feedback to a coworker who consistently underperforms?

Constructive feedback should be provided in the form of non-judgemental statements about the professional deficiencies of your coworker. You should also offer clear advice on how they could improve. Providing them with instructional and informational resources is also recommended.

Written by:
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co-founder / office worker
Alex has been an office worker for more than 10 years. He is dedicated to helping other office workers to achieve the perfect life-work balance through well-being, effective communication, and building productive habits.

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