Incompetence at the office—How can it be handled?

Each of us has experienced, at one time or another, a moment of extreme solitude in which one notices with desperation, or close to it, that the person in front of them or somewhere else is… simply useless. Like, they really suck, you know? We can all recall an instant like that, right? It has probably happened more than once in your career.

Facing a colleague, a team, partners, members of the board, assistants or customers, we have all experienced gross incompetency, and we have all had the impression that all our efforts to explain a process or to understand the other side’s situation would be doomed to bitter failure. In other words, with the dumb person in front of you, we’re not out of the woods! But let me reassure you, this is not a fatality.

The purpose of this article is not to give you examples of proven or imagined incompetence, it is not based on any study or analysis and it is not supposed to transform your colleagues into geniuses (if it were that simple, we would know how to do it). The purpose is more about my willingness to share the philosophy that I have developed over the years. With the help of various tools, I have been able to keep smiling most of the time and bring things into perspective when it wasn’t the case anymore; in other words, I have managed to stay Zen even in situations paralyzed by the dysfunction of a person, a system or an organization.

Everyone does their best, always

When I decided to set that affirmation as a principle, everything flowed more easily for me. I see the outcry (trust me, I’ve lived it) that this position statement raises. More than once, one answered a simple “Yeah, ok, but him, he’s really a bummer!” Yes, but no.

So, everyone does always his or her best, according to many factors, conscious or unconscious, ancient or recent: parental education and environment, school career, successive hierarchies, intra- and extra-professional experiences, mental or physical trauma, official or untold rules, fatigue, illness, financial concerns, specific circumstances….An infinite list that you can nevertheless add up: it is the person in front of you, with everything that built him or her, and everything that constitutes him or her today. This person is formed by this collection of lived experiences, which are combined with various positive, neutral or negative circumstances. In this specific configuration and at that specific moment, the person will give his or her very best, without any doubt, to achieve what he or she is trying to do, something that may be basic or even trivial for other people formed by a different collection of events and experiences.

Take someone who has been berated once by the boss and who is having a bad day because of an unfortunate incident. Terrified even by the idea of repeating this experience, this person will continue to do the best he or she can, intending nevertheless to never step outside the framework that has been defined as his or hers. Add to this a pinch of low self-esteem, and you get a stunning cocktail that a person unaware of those circumstances would consider incompetence: “This is not that complicated, is it?” This example, voluntarily simplistic, may illustrate my words and sensitize everybody to the fact that, at the end of the day, we never really know what the other is currently living or how. When we consider that every person gives his or her best according to known and unknown circumstances, we make the choice for empathy.

So what can be done? Because finally, things need to be done, and everything is rather urgent, obviously. Let me share some thoughts and ways for reflection. Take what you like, throw away the rest and complete with your own ingredients! And share!

Faced with the impossibility of changing others, change yourself!

“Anyhow, you are always a moron to someone” (Carl Aderhold, Mort aux cons ! 2007, my translation).

In this short caustic novel that I highly recommend, Carl Aderhold explores the different facets of human stupidity, the one at your door as well as the one of world-class level. In our context, it serves to remind us of the subjectivity involved in the observation of incompetence. Who knows, it may be the public servant in front of you who is silently whining about your incapacity to understand how to complete the pale-pink-form number 24b, which is dead simple! In other words, when you meet this kind of situation, take a minute, breath deeply and ask yourself these questions.

  • Why does this irritate or anger me?
  • What did I communicate/ask/require to obtain such a response?
  • At the scale of the universe, or even a whole life, is it that important?
  • On what can I act now?

Even if you don’t find immediate answers to these questions (it’s even unlikely), taking time to question yourself relieves the internal pressure; it allows you to step back. Given that it is impossible to change others, it becomes vital to cultivate our own capacity to change our perception of them.

Change your communication! The power of positive thinking

Here is an easy tip to allow you to find competence where it stands (often hidden right next to the proved or imagined incompetence): clean up your communication. Are you aware of the number of negations which pepper your emails? Count, just out of curiosity. The brain, as we know for sure now, hardly interprets negative formulations (don’t think at all; what do you do?). It will therefore hardly be joyfully committed to activities saturated by negativity. So remove the NOT and the BUT (which cancel by their own definitions everything that comes before), and you will rapidly see some subtle but real impact on your professional relations (and your personal ones too). It is so much more appreciated to hear “Do!” than “Don’t do!” (and “Cease!” will have a whole different impact).

Here is a simple example: I totally removed the expression “It’s nothing/not at all” from my vocabulary, when someone thanks me. If what I’ve done is important enough to be thanked for, it seems very sad to reduce its value by considering that it’s actually…nothing. I replaced it with, “With pleasure!” (and a smile 😊).

From a global perspective, the impact of more positive thinking will lead to more commitment, motivation and a better perception than the other way around. Each day that you put a smile on your heart and your face is a successful day.

The land of Care Bears—Why it’s actually awesome.

Growing up without this wonder called a television, I wasn’t able to relish the wonderful world of Care Bears. The only thing I know about them is the (French) expression, “We’re not in Care Bears’ land here!” (which loosely translates to “We’re not in La La Land”). This means that a place where everybody is kind and nice is illusory and doomed to fail because of egoism and the law of the strongest or most devious. As if the professional world was so merciless that it would never give a chance to anyone other than bulldozers or freaks. Fortunately, we know now that is not the case. For my part, experience has proved time and again that kindness and a positive approach in each situation yield better results. Kindness in the workplace is still a recent concept, happily becoming a staple.

Kindness is actually quite simple to understand; it fits in three sentences.

  • Look out for others as you would want them to look out for you.
  • Listen to the others while also listening to your own emotions.
  • Express clearly your feelings and your expectations.

Of course, it’s hard to apply, even with training, and even more so in the workplace. Here a few shortcuts that may help you out.

  • Say why things are important for you. Speak in the first person (I).
  • Take the time to listen to people. They may have something to say.
  • Involve the people you are dealing with when looking for solutions.

Perceived incompetence is, finally, only the tip of an iceberg of misunderstanding about responsibilities, objectives and means to achieve them, expectations of everybody involved, or simply about the time of the meeting. Imagine for a second that everyone improves their communication and their level of empathy at the very same time.

Might it be that incompetence doesn’t exist?

To go further, here are four authors that have influenced my philosophy on different levels.

Louise Hay, 2013: Transformez votre vie (All Is Well: Heal Your Body. Carlsbad, US: Hay House. 2013)

Marshall B. Rosenberg, 2004: Les mots sont des fenêtres (ou bien ce sont des murs); Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

Serge Marquis, 2015: On est foutu, on pense trop!

Gaël Châtelain, 2017: Mon boss est nul, mais je le soigne!