Employees are one of the company's most valuable assets. Employees, on the other hand, are one of a company's most significant liabilities. When incompetent and dead-weight individuals penetrate a company, the damage they create is brutally apparent. The Peter Principle states that most organizational hierarchies, such as those of a business, incline each person to ascend the ranks by promotion until they reach a point of relative incompetence. The Peter Principle is based on the paradoxical idea that competent employees will continue to be promoted. Ultimately they will eventually be promoted into positions for which they are incompetent. They will remain in those positions at some stage because they have not demonstrated any additional competence that would qualify them for further advancement.
According to Dr. Laurence Peter, in every organisational hierarchy, there comes the point whereby every position is filled by employees who are incompetent to fulfil the duties of their respective positions. The question now is, what is incompetence?
Dr. Laurence Peter remarked in one of his bestselling books (The Peter Principle) that "Occupational incompetence is everywhere." Incompetence can mean different things to different people. The Cambridge Dictionary defines incompetence as a "lack of ability to do something successfully or as it should be done". The Collins dictionary defines incompetence as the inability to do one's job properly. In some instances, incompetence is defined as the inability of an employee to submit work on time, submit work with errors, or request help from others. Others view incompetence as not being the greatest at everything or lacking the ability to do all tasks.
Dunning and Kruger assessed the abilities of four groups of young people in domains such as comedy, logic, and grammar in their work "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognising One Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments" (1999). The study's findings showed that incompetent individuals would not only exaggerate their competence in comparison to objective standards, but they are also more prone to overlook other people's true abilities. In summary, the study suggests that those who experience this impact lack the metacognitive abilities (i.e., the ability to think about ones thinking processes and skills competencies) necessary to admit that they have performed poorly. People typically aren't in a position to know what true objective criteria for competence are and aren't fulfilling them since they don't have insight into their bad performance or ineptitude.
Incompetence vs Incompetency
The capacity to execute successfully is referred to as competence. The word generally refers to abilities obtained via education or training, and the individual is being judged against a standard, such as employment requirements. Incompetence can also be referred to as incompetency. Incompetency, like incompetence, refers to the inability to do something successfully. Many people are highly qualified, yet they are incompetent. Some have the requisite work experience but are still incompetent in their roles. Scientific evidence has shown that level of education and experience combined contribute only a 3% variance in individual performance.
On the other hand, there is gross incompetence. Now, this term is not widely understood by many organizations. Gross incompetence can be defined as workplace behaviour that is not purposeful or willful (i.e., it's not misbehaviour), but has had significant effects. Dismissal is frequently done without warning. The dictionary also defines gross incompetence as any professional misconduct or unreasonable lack of professional skill in the performance of the professional practice. An example of gross incompetence could be a qualified, highly experienced finance director who fails to submit signed-off accounts by the statutory due date, putting the organization in jeopardy of several sanctions as well as possible adverse press, which could be found to have committed an act of Gross Incompetence.
There is sometimes confusion between gross incompetence and misconduct. Well, there is a fine line between the two. Misconduct is defined as carelessness, deliberate intent, bad attitude, etc., while gross incompetence is about an individual being unable to perform within their role. At the senior level, gross incompetence can be attributed to those promoted beyond their abilities/potential, and no training would have helped improve that.
Examples of Incompetence in the workplace
You may not know everything while starting a new career or taking on a new responsibility. Making errors or failing at work may harm your self-esteem and confidence. These sentiments may influence your attitude toward your job and contribute to burnout in some situations. Spotting incompetence is simple. Look for the people who know full well what they need to change about themselves to be more productive but refuse to do so. However, once an employee's consciousness has been awakened, he is responsible for correcting the problem rather than celebrating it. Those who make a point of identifying themselves as such are incompetent.
Below are some tell-tale signs that one is incompetent:
One common cause of incompetence is laziness. Laziness usually leads to errors, tardiness and other related problems. A common cause of incompetence is laziness, which can lead to mistakes, lateness and other problems. Incompetent people usually neglect to double-check their work, work ends up being done with errors which could lead to making a company look unprofessional or can cause a department to make unnecessary mistakes. Incompetence can also be shown by the inability to check the status of a project that one is handling or sloppiness and carelessness when handling a project.
- Poor Communication
According to India Employer Forum, just because you give someone instructions doesn't mean you've done your job. A trail of inept employees is a sign of an incompetent manager. A capable employee will inquire if coworkers or clients have got the message, if they comprehend it, and if they can fulfil the request.
Another kind of incompetence is waiting until the last minute to find out that a project will not be completed; instead, you should check in with key stakeholders throughout the project to assess its progress. You are not qualified to work with others if you cannot correctly convey your thoughts or your superior's directions to others, resulting in problems at work.
- Lack of People Skills
To stay in business, businesses must attract and keep consumers and staff. Being tactless, bossy, impolite, unclear, agitated, or not instilling confidence in the people you work with are all examples of incompetence at work owing to a lack of people skills. Managerial incompetence is demonstrated when you fire a key employee because you only point out his flaws and never compliment him. Another example of incompetence is attempting to acquire a potential customer by telling her she is doing something incorrectly and making her feel stupid.
- Lack of Training
You may be assigned work for which you have no training or expertise through no fault of your own. A great salesperson, for example, could be promoted to sales manager, overseeing the sales department's efforts. He may fail if he lacks experience in building departmental budgets, defining sales goals, determining prices based on a company's costs and market demand and supply, devising commission schemes, developing sales materials, and other management aspects. According to Russell HR Consulting, one of the leading causes of workplace incompetence is a lack of training.
Why are people incompetent?
According to an article by Memory Nguwi (2019), Why do most Zimbabwean companies struggle with incompetent people? The following are reasons why there are many incompetent people in organizations:
- When hiring, most recruiters are obsessed with whether the candidate has the relevant qualifications. In contrast, scientific evidence has shown that years of education alone are not sufficient to determine successful performance in the role.
- Recruiters are also obsessed with experience, with those with higher years of experience being preferred in the hiring process. Scientific evidence also shows that years of experience have a very weak relationship with actual performance on the job.
- A good predictor of performance is past performance. It is essential before hiring an individual to assess their past performance. What have they achieved in their past role? If the answer is nothing, then it is best not to hire that individual as they may have been incompetent. The past performance must be consistent, not just a once-off performance where they may have performed well.
- One of the most significant predictors of performance across roles is Cognitive ability (general mental ability). If one has poor cognitive ability, the chances are that the person will not perform on the job. The person is likely to fail to deliver. Some organizations mistake hiring people they think have the potential and think they will be able to change them into performers. Cognitive ability is hereditary mainly and also formed due to child experience, so there isn't much an organization can do to change one's cognitive ability. It is important to hire people who have the potential to excel.
- Most organizations make the mistake of hiring people who are eloquent and speak so well during the interview process. Speaking well does not correlate with job performance. One can speak so well, yet they are incompetent.
- Most managers also make the mistake of hiring people based on whether they like them or not. They hire people based on social aspects like the fact that they come from the same village, physical appearance, schools attended or relationship with the candidate, etc. These are all factors unrelated to performance. This led to the hiring of possibly incompetent people.
- Personality is also an essential factor to consider when hiring individuals, though it is highly hereditary and reflects childhood experience. Highly intelligent people can fail to perform due to personality defects. Personality defects can lead to incompetence.
Below are some examples of situations that can lead to one feeling incompetent at work:
- You're perplexed by your coworker's usage of buzzwords or jargon.
- You avoid expressing your opinions or asking inquiries because you are afraid of being judged by others.
- You've been asked to make a decision but don't feel you have enough knowledge.
- You've been given names of people to contact, but you have no idea who they are.
- Your coworkers or bosses ask you to do duties based on the assumption that you are familiar with their procedures.
How to deal with incompetence in the workplace
Companies could address the challenge provided by the Peter Principle by providing proper skills training to employees before and after being promoted and ensuring that the training is appropriate for the position to which they have been promoted. Nguwi (2019) also recommends that people be hired and promoted based on merit to deal with incompetence in the workplace.
According to an article by Entrepreneur, the following are recommendations for how leaders can deal with incompetent people in the workplace:
1. Communicate clearly
According to the Work Management Survey conducted in 2015, 52% of the respondents indicated that the top stressor in the workplace is unclear communication or missing information. Unclear leadership was another leading factor listed by the respondents (44%) as unclear accountability (44%). Leaders need to create an environment with clear communication where everyone is on the same page. A leader must establish a communication system that everyone is clear about and is expected to follow. Expectations must be made clear and discussed with the team.
2. Everything must be documented
To avoid unnecessary confrontations, it is essential to document everything. As soon as there is an incidence whereby an employee is not pulling their weight, or someone making unnecessary comments, record the details. When there is an argument, the leader should get both sides of the story and document the statements. Should the issue need to be escalated, there will be clear documentation about what happened. As a leader, be calm and objective, especially when dealing with conflict.
3. Stay cool
As a leader, it is essential to maintain good mental health. It is necessary to know when to take a break. According to research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, conflicts are likely to occur in open offices/ shared offices. When conflict arises in such places, one should take a moment to de-stress before confronting the situation.
4. Be prepared to make tough choices
It's tempting just to let incompetent, or tough employees fall on their faces after dealing with them for a while. Rather than wasting time and energy carrying their weight, it appears that seeing them fail is a better option. Is this, however, indeed what is best for the team? According to Johns Hopkins Carey Business School research, one team member's deviant behaviour motivates others to work more than they would if there was no misconduct. Working with incompetent people can be extremely frustrating, but in the end, it can benefit the rest of the team.
It might be difficult to tell whether an employee's low-performance results from innate incapability, laziness, negligence, or a lack of effort. In some circumstances, a combination of all of these characteristics may be present. Give the employee the benefit of the doubt in the initial instance and informally oversee the person's performance.
As an individual, there are ways in which one can deal with incompetence:
1. Accept your feelings
If you're starting a new career or taking on a new responsibility, expect to feel uneasy or incompetent at first. You can convince yourself that you are not a failure because you did not succeed on your first try, but rather that you are merely going through the learning process. You will get more comfortable and competent at executing that task as you gain expertise and practice. Setting these goals might help you recognize that these sentiments are natural and alleviate the pressure to perform perfectly.
2. Reflect on the positives
Concentrating on what you did wrong may serve to reinforce your emotions of incompetence. Set aside time to reflect on your strengths rather than condemning yourself for your faults or failings. You can keep track of any positive feedback or interactions you have during the week. By the conclusion of the week, you should have a list that you can go to remind yourself of your strengths. Reflecting on your strengths at work might help you gain confidence and increase your morale.
3. Mistakes happen to everyone
Feeling incompetent can make one compare themselves with their colleagues. When you are new to the team, you may feel more inexperienced than your teammates, making you feel less confident about your abilities. In such instances, it is essential to understand that people go through different stages of competence. The person you see excelling now was once in your position and may still be making mistakes despite their experience. Instead of criticizing yourself for mistakes, use them as motivation tools, and take them as an opportunity to learn and grow your skills.
4. Be honest
Discuss your feelings of incompetence with a colleague or your supervisor. Do not be afraid to ask for help where you need it. Discuss your performance with your supervisor and get their input on how you perform and how you can do better to improve your importance.
5. Commit to change
Where you have identified your mistakes and areas of improvement, it is essential to make a conscious and deliberate move then to improve those areas where you are falling short. Through practice and development, you are likely to address the issues of incompetence.
6. Monitor progress
As you engage in the development, monitor your progress. Ask your colleagues or your supervisors for feedback if they see any changes or improvements in performance. Keep a record of your progress, well documented. Gaining feedback can assist in keeping you focused on the development initiatives.
Suppose you are constantly frustrated with your boss (and their refusal to promote you) or your subordinates (and their failure to carry out your orders). In that case, it's worth wondering whether you've already reached your "degree of incompetence," as Peter puts it, and you're just not aware of it. That's not always easy to see – as Peter put it, "competence, like truth, beauty, and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder" – but a humble awareness might motivate you to fix your flaws and develop the skills that are currently holding you back, or to look for a new job where your unique talents are more valuable.