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Crucial Influence

Q&A: Coping with Incompetence

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

We have a person on our team who is not up to the job. This person is not respected in our team. No one wants to work with him. He sees himself as an expert, but is not. Additionally, he has a pompous attitude. He takes credit for others’ work and has been caught doing so by management. He has made our company look like fools to our vendors. His name is used as a threat to other areas in our company: “Be nice or you will have to work with Brian.” Recently, our team has been asked to provide two members to a major work effort. Since Brian volunteered, no one else has volunteered.

Several of us have voiced our concerns to our manager and his boss. We have provided specific examples of his incompetence. Our vendors don’t want to work with him and have also complained to management. We are out of options. Where do we go from here?


Dead Weight

A Dear Dead Weight,

What a frustrating situation. It’s one thing when you suffer because of your own “accountability” failings; it adds a dollop of despair when the failing is out of your direct control. Here are my thoughts on both influencing and coping with the situation.

Influencing. I’ll ask a few questions to help you consider whether you’ve exhausted your options for influencing the situation for the better. I’m going to assume for the sake of my response that your view of the situation is 100 percent accurate—there is broad consensus about this person’s incompetence and offensive behavior. Since you suggested this is a widely shared view I won’t press you, as I usually would, to explore whether your judgments are biased or amplified.

1. Have you held the right conversation? People who report having “spoken up” have often, in reality, stopped quite short of the right conversation. For example, they’ll pass the boss in the hallway, make an offhand comment and eye-roll about a colleague’s action, then pat themselves on the back for having been “candid.” Let’s say your fundamental concern is a pattern of taking credit that is undermining trust in the team. And in this hallway conversation you said, “Boss, I heard Brian claimed he created the new inventory spreadsheet. In fact, Natasha did that.” What you’ve just done is held the wrong conversation. You’ve shared a single instance of concern when the real issue is a broad pattern of concerns with wide ranging consequences. You have not held the “right” conversation. So I ask you, have you and others met with appropriate leaders and shared the full range of your facts, the full extent of consequences to vendors, customers, teammates, and the organization of the pattern of behavior you witness? If not, then there is more you can do.

2. Are you open to being influenced? Be sure as you hold conversations with management that your goal is dialogue, not monologue. After you share your full view, be prepared for them to have a different view. Your job is to put all of your “meaning” in the shared pool, then to invite them to do the same. They may have other facts, other conclusions, and other values. For example, your teammate may be making an extraordinary contribution that they see as offsetting the irritations you experience—different values. They may see the same behavior but judge it differently—different conclusions. Or they may see a very different behavior and performance than you do—different facts. You seem to have a pretty airtight case, but if you approach them as though you possess all truth, you’re less likely to get to dialogue. And the goal of dialogue is not just to change them but to change you too!

Coping. If you’ve done all you are willing to do to influence appropriate accountability, you have two options: coping and codependence.

I’ll define the coping option as the healthy one. It requires integrity, acceptance, compassion, and boundaries. Codependence, on the other hand, is the absence of integrity, acceptance, compassion, and boundaries. You know you’re codependent if this colleague triggers feelings of resentment, powerlessness, and blame.

Integrity. First of all, healthy coping means you are being honest with yourself. You have done all you feel is appropriate to influence the situation. You know you aren’t being honest with yourself if you chronically blame others for your emotions and circumstances. Often my own irritation is more a function of my failure to speak up, than others’ failure to change.

Acceptance. Next, get out of denial about the reality you are in. Accept that you have bosses that are imperfect. Accept that you have a colleague who appears insecure. Accept that—at least at present—there is nothing more you can do to influence it for the better. Other opportunities to influence change may present themselves. But at present, you’ve done all you can or should do. So focus on what you can influence to create a positive work environment for yourself. What turns irritation into misery is an unwillingness to accept reality.

Compassion. Irritation becomes loathing when we hold a distorted view of those around us. When others create problems, we try to protect ourselves by putting distance between us and them. The unfortunate effect of this natural reaction is that we cut ourselves off from the broader set of observations that would help us see the other person as a human being rather than as a bundle of weaknesses. You can avoid this by finding ways to suspend your judgments and generate compassion.

Boundaries. Finally, take responsibility for communicating and enforcing your expectations and boundaries with this individual. For example, if this person is unreliable, create boundaries that allow you to control your destiny. You might say, “I will need your input by Monday. If I don’t receive it by 8 a.m., I won’t be including it in my report.” The difference between boundaries and passive-aggression is candor. Passive aggression—which might involve gossip, avoidance, or finger-pointing on your part—is a sign you are not coping in a healthy way, but are caught in a codependent relationship with this person. Healthy coping would mean you candidly explain the boundaries you are setting up to help you do quality work and have good quality of work life—while also remaining open to revising this relationship if you see signals of change.

I sincerely hope something in what I’ve shared is useful to you in getting to a better place.



You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

2 thoughts on “Q&A: Coping with Incompetence”

  1. John

    Update to the original situation, “Brian” has been moved to second shift and marginalized by management. His work performance has not improved. The rest of our team has to work with him quite infrequently now.

  2. Laura

    This post provides some of the best suggestions out there for coping with the passive aggressive coworker. I have experienced nine months of underperforming, chronic mistakes, painfully slow work, and resistance to direction from one coworker. I appreciate the suggestions about how I can focus on creating a positive and successful work life for myself. Thank you for offering concrete suggestions when I have been struggling for so long under the belief that there is nothing I can do to affect change at work.

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