How To Deal With Incompetent Coworkers (And Save Your Sanity)

In the fascinating realm of the professional world, replete with its exhilarating triumphs and hair-pulling trials, one unavoidable phenomenon stands out like a lone asteroid veering off course: the reality of how to deal with incompetent coworkers.

Whether it’s the new hire struggling to meet the bare minimum of their new job requirements, the coworker manifesting a classical case of the Peter Principle, or a seasoned employee demonstrating a distressingly poor performance, such instances of incompetence can indeed be highly irritating.

But fear not!

This comprehensive guide will equip you with practical insights and give you a few tips on dealing with these coworkers, including taking your issue to the manager, making your work environment less of a navigational challenge and more of a star-studded journey toward professional excellence.


Clashing with other coworkers can often turn a work environment sour, adding unnecessary stress to your life and making it nearly impossible to complete that project or communicate effectively. When another worker doesn’t pull their weight, it can harm you and your organization.
There are multiple ways to deal with these coworkers, and while it may seem annoying to put the effort in, the result can be beneficial and lead to clear communication, allowing you to work effectively with such people while meeting the expectations of the company.
It’s equally important to be aware of your health and limitations while tackling this challenge. Prioritize your well-being over the success of a project; having a sense of your self-worth while talking to other workers can ensure you don’t suffer while helping a coworker grow and become more competent at their job.

How to Deal With Incompetent Coworkers: The Strategies That Work

What Makes Coworkers “Incompetent”?

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Merriam-Webster has many synonyms for incompetence, from the stinging “bungler” to the brusque “blunderer.”

But in the work environment, it tends to display a lack of capacity to fulfill one’s job expectations.

From the novice new hire who struggles to grasp basic duties to the team leader succumbing to the Peter Principle, incompetence permeates all levels of the organization.

Examples of Incompetence in a Work Environment

#1. Lack of Basic Skills

An employee struggles to carry out fundamental duties related to their job despite adequate training and resources.

#2. Repeated Errors

The same mistakes keep cropping up in a worker’s output, indicating a lack of understanding or attention to detail.

#3. Failure To Meet Deadlines

They regularly fail to complete projects or tasks on time, causing delays and disruptions in the team’s work.

#4. Poor Communication

They cannot communicate information effectively, leading to confusion and misunderstandings among team members.

#5. Inadequate Job Knowledge

Employees don’t possess the essential knowledge or skills required for their role, even after being on the job for a reasonable period.

#6. Shirking Responsibilities

Employees evade their duties or constantly delegate duties to others.

This is sometimes termed “weaponized incompetence.”

#7. Resistance to Feedback

There’s an unwillingness to accept constructive criticism or suggestions for improvement, so they continue doing things wrong.

#8. Poor Performance Despite Additional Training

The worker’s performance doesn’t improve after further training or resources are invested.

#9. Inability To Adapt

Employees have no desire to adapt to new technologies, processes, or organizational changes in the company, impacting work efficiency.

#10. The Peter Principle

Workers are promoted to a level of incompetence due to their previous adequate performance in a different role.

How To Deal With Incompetent Workers

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Ah, the eternal problem: How to deal with incompetent coworkers?

They’re scattered across the work landscape like hidden landmines of frustration and wasted time.

But fret not, for we shall arm you with a toolkit of strategies to navigate this minefield.

#1. Determine the Degree and Type of Incompetent Coworker

The first step to dealing with this coworker is to accurately assess the degree and type of their incompetence.

This involves distinguishing between a genuinely incompetent employee and someone having difficulty adjusting to a new role or task.

In some cases, the incompetence could be a mere veneer for what’s known as “weaponized incompetence,” a deliberate attempt to evade responsibilities by consistently performing jobs poorly.

Such a tactic leads others to stop assigning them duties, and they get away with doing less work.

It’s essential to recognize this to prevent yourself from continuously picking up their slack.

At other times, the incompetence might stem from the individual being promoted beyond their ability, resulting from the Peter Principle.

It’s where a worker is promoted based on their performance in their current role, not their suitability for the new one.

The result is a mismatch between their skills and job requirements, leading to an incompetent performance.

Understanding this can guide your approach toward encouraging them to develop new skills or discussing the situation with management.

For example, the person may be new to their role or the organization, causing them to struggle initially.

In such a case, offering support, mentorship, talking things out, or further training could prove effective.

Lastly, it could be due to a lack of motivation or interest in the job, manifesting in a negative performance.

Here, exploring the root cause of their disinterest and taking their point of view could potentially turn around their performance.

Understanding the degree and type of ineptitude is crucial.

It allows for tailored strategies more likely to result in improved performance and a better working relationship with your coworker.

It also assists in avoiding unnecessary conflict and fosters a more beneficial and productive workspace.

#2. Embrace Individual Responsibility

In a team, each member carries individual responsibilities aligned with the larger organizational goals.

It’s essential to uphold this accountability, especially when encountering blundering coworkers.

When others fail to fulfill their duties, the temptation to step in and pick up the slack can be overwhelming.

While this might seem like the quickest solution to an immediate problem, it’s often a short-term fix that can lead to long-term issues.

Bearing the weight of others’ responsibilities can result in overworking, burnout, and resentment.

It blurs the lines of individual roles and can make the incompetent coworker complacent, further enabling their lack of productivity.

You’re not responsible for others’ duties; your primary responsibility is to fulfill your tasks to the best of your ability.

#3. Set Boundaries

Setting boundaries with your incompetent coworkers is crucial to maintaining your productivity and mental well-being in the workplace.

Establishing clear lines of what is and isn’t your responsibility allows for a balanced distribution of tasks and helps prevent burnout from taking on others’ duties.

For instance, if your coworker continually delegates their tasks to you or asks for assistance, you must respectfully articulate your limitations.

Explain that while you’re happy to help when you can, you also have your workload to manage.

Promote a culture of individual responsibility, encouraging your coworker to tackle obstacles independently to foster their growth.

Remember, the aim isn’t to isolate but to create an environment where each worker contributes effectively and respects the other’s roles and responsibilities.

#4. Maintain Professionalism

Maintaining professionalism can be a formidable task in the face of incompetent colleagues.

However, it’s a critical aspect of navigating such situations in the workplace.

Encounters with incompetent coworkers can be frustrating when their actions or lack thereof impact your workload or the team’s performance.

Despite these challenges, it’s essential to uphold a high standard of professionalism.

Responding with anger or resorting to unprofessional behavior fails to resolve the issue and can lead to a toxic work setting.

A composed, respectful approach keeps communication lines open and enables more effective problem-solving.

#5. Focus on the Bigger Picture

When confronted with the challenge of an inept coworker, it’s easy to get bogged down in the everyday frustrations and disruptions.

Make a point to step back and look at the larger picture.

Consider the broader objectives of your team, the assignments you’re working on, and the organization’s goals.

Remind yourself of the value you bring to your job and the impact of your contributions to the company’s success.

If you’re finding your coworker’s incapability obstructs your ability to prioritize your tasks, consider strategies to minimize the impact of their actions on your work.

#6. Be Aware of Your Actions

Maintaining professionalism also extends to how you talk about your coworker to others in the workplace.

It might be tempting to vent your frustrations to colleagues, but doing so can often exacerbate the issue and create a hostile atmosphere.

Instead, if you need to discuss the issue, focus on the behavior or performance causing the problem, not the person.

Finally, if your efforts to address the issue directly with the individual aren’t successful, and you choose to escalate the situation to your manager or HR, ensure that you approach them professionally.

Clearly outline your concerns, provide specific examples of the behavior or performance, and, if possible, suggest potential solutions.

Maintaining professionalism increases the chances of resolving the issue effectively and creates a better environment for everyone involved.

#7. Escalate the Issue if Necessary

Despite your best efforts, there may be times when communicating effectively, setting boundaries, and maintaining professionalism don’t improve your coworker’s performance.

In such instances, it may be necessary to escalate the issue by writing to the manager and making your voice heard.

This is not an action to be taken lightly.

Still, sometimes, it’s the only recourse when handling extremely frustrating incompetence that affects your work, the team, and, potentially, the success of the company’s projects.

Before approaching a manager or HR, ensure you’ve documented all incidents of inadequacy and any attempts you’ve made to address the issue directly with the coworker.

These records should include specific examples of the unprofessional behavior, its impact on your or the team’s work, and any communications you’ve had about the issue.

This information will provide a clear picture of the ongoing problem, supporting your case effectively and keeping you on good terms with management.

#8. Practice Self-Care

Consider self-care ideas tailored to your work situation alongside these more general practices.

For instance, if you find interactions with your incompetent coworker particularly draining, you might schedule brief “recovery” breaks after these encounters to decompress.

Furthermore, don’t hesitate to seek support if needed.

Speak to trusted colleagues or friends about your experiences, or consider professional resources like assistance programs if they’re available.

Remember, your value as a worker extends beyond your current job or dealing with an incompetent coworker.

Prioritizing self-care enables you to bring your best self to work, contributing positively to the workplace and effectively navigating the challenges posed by incompetent coworkers.

#9. Adapt Your Communication Style With the Incompetent Employee

Adapting your communication style also extends to giving feedback.

If an incompetent coworker makes mistakes, it’s essential to talk about the issue constructively.

Consider the situation and the person involved while providing feedback.

A more direct approach might sometimes work, but you might need to use more tact and positivity with others.

Avoid blaming language and focus on the specific behavior that needs improvement.

Try incorporating positive reinforcement and constructive criticism to keep the conversation balanced and effective.

Remember, the aim is to promote growth and improvement, not to shame or demoralize.

Adapting your communication style can be a powerful tool in managing situations with incompetent coworkers.

It facilitates better understanding and performance and fosters stronger relationships in the workplace, which can significantly improve the overall environment.

#10. Prioritize Collaboration

Prioritizing collaboration also involves creating an environment where everyone feels their voice is heard and valued.

Encouraging open communication can help identify the reasons behind an employee’s incompetence.

For example, it might emerge that they’re struggling with a specific aspect of their job description or need additional training or resources.

Moreover, working closely together allows for more immediate feedback and guidance, which can be invaluable for employees looking to improve their performance.

It also presents a platform for reinforcing constructive behaviors and progress.

Promoting a collaborative work environment can help guide your coworker toward better performance, contribute to a healthier team dynamic, and perhaps even develop your leadership skills.

Final Thoughts

Handling incompetent coworkers is an invaluable skill that will serve you throughout your career.

Incompetence manifests in various ways, but applying the principles of understanding, effective communication, setting boundaries, maintaining professionalism, and focusing on the greater picture typically works across scenarios.

It’s essential to remember managing incompetent colleagues isn’t just about managing the frustrations associated with their performance.

It also involves cultivating a work environment that encourages growth, learning, and collaboration.

As challenging as it may seem, these circumstances present opportunities to hone your patience, empathy, and problem-solving abilities – vital skills for any workplace.

Taking on an incompetent coworker can be intense, but adopting self-care practices can help mitigate these pressures.

Preserving your mental and physical health isn’t just essential for personal reasons; it equips you to manage these situations better and perform optimally in your job.

While difficult, the journey of managing an incompetent coworker provides opportunities for professional growth and the development of a more resilient work ethic.

Whether you’re adapting your communication style, advocating for additional training for a colleague, or escalating the matter to management, each step offers valuable learning experiences.

This path, though strenuous, can yield positive change, not only in your work environment but also in your professional development journey.

Despite the challenges, remember that the situation also presents an opportunity for growth and learning, leading to a more effective, resilient, and harmonious work environment.

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