Some of the definitions for incompetent:

  • lacking the qualities needed for effective action
  • unable to function properly
  • not legally qualified
  • inadequate to or unsuitable for a particular purpose
Merriam-Webster

Given this, it’s more than likely we’ve all been the incompetent one on the team at some point in our career. Depending on the nature of the work we do, it’s reasonable to assume we could all be that person whenever we join a new team.

This isn’t to discount the skill experience teaches, but each time you start a new project (greenfield or not), there’s going to be a period in which you have to learn enough about the problem domain to actually start making meaningful contributions.

All of the above is a longer way of me delaying commentary on the claim that we’ll work with incompetent people. It’s uncomfortable to discuss because we’re making a claim about peers who are not incompetent because they’re just getting started in their career or because they are the new person on the team.

They’re considered incompetent because they aren’t able to fulfill the responsibilities, obligations, and/or demands of their job because of any one point of the above definition.

So given the claim we’ll sometimes work with incompetent people and given the definition above, how true is it that we’ll sometimes work with incompetent people?


Will We Work With Incompetent People?

In my experience, the only time I’ve truly worked with anyone incompetent was because of a willful desire to not learn what was necessary to do the job. And by that, I mean the person had the potential to actual do what was asked of them but achieving said potential required a level of effort they were unwilling to put forth.

Therein lies how a person can become incompetent not only in the field of development but generally in any field:

  • There’s a problem that needs to be solved,
  • The problem exists in a domain that requires a level of discovery and/or education (and not necessarily in the academic sense),
  • The person opts out of discovery and/or education,
  • The person can’t solve the problem,
  • And thus the person remain incompetent in their job.

Because some organizations still allow you to draw a paycheck without doing more than the bare minimum, there isn’t always a strong incentive to get better at whatever is asked.

And if this is what it means to work with incompetent people, then yes. It happens.

On Willful Incompetence

People don’t necessarily want to remain willfully incompetent, though. In my career [so far], there are plenty of times in which I would be labeled incompetent not because of my inability to ever solve the problem, but because of my inability to solve the problem at that time.

Given enough time, training, and/or information as well as enough motivation, it’s possible to move yourself out of that position and into one that enables you to get the work done.

Not only that, assuming you’re a person who is working with someone who may be currently incompetent but needs more information to become familiar with the problem domain, it’s also possible for you to be the person to help them move from one arena to the next.

In other words, if you see a need, meet it. If a colleague is unable to achieve something that you’re able to do, don’t attempt to subvert their attempt and solve it yourself.

Give them whatever help necessary to give them enough information to move forward and, assuming they’re motivated, they’ll move into the arena of being able to solve the problem.

On the Original Article

An incompetent developer who’s more interested in his fidget spinner. Generated by Imagine by Meta.

Finally, I wanted to make sure I link to the original article to see the context in which this claim was written as well as the author’s experience. In trying to summarize what’s listed here, I’d say it’s something like this:

  • Dealing with incompetent colleagues in the workplace can be frustrating and time-consuming, creating a toxic environment that affects productivity and deadlines.
  • Working with such individuals can lead to significant delays, ultimately costing companies both money and resources.
  • The frustration and challenges posed by incompetent colleagues can prompt individuals to spend considerable time strategizing ways to navigate around their lack of competence.
  • In certain situations, individuals may lack the complete context behind someone’s performance issues. There are instances where individuals struggle to perform well due to an overwhelming workload, juggling responsibilities meant for two people and hindering their ability to fulfill their job adequately.

So, yes, there are differences in what he’s experienced versus me. I’m not arguing his claim (any more than I’ve done so in the past articles). I’m just stating my observations, experiences, and ideas on how to mitigate the situation.

Final Outcomes

Ultimately, I find that one of two outcomes will happen:

  • The person will be motivated and needs more information to get started.
  • The personal lacks motivation and desire to do more than the minimum amount of work. This will be a hindrance, but there’s very little that can be done about it.

Whatever the case: Don’t dismiss incompetence on its face. Perhaps the person needs more help. And in any case, good luck.