Weaponized Incompetence: How to Respond to the Subtle Manipulation Tactic
When someone performs a task poorly, there could be more to it than meets the eye.
My dad once taught me a trick he’d learned while working in construction as a scaffolder. New team members would be on tea duty, requiring them to make up to 20 cups, a number of times every day. The men my dad worked with were no-nonsense, and if they didn’t like the tea, if it were a little too milky, or a little too strong, they’d spit it out and ask for another, meaning double the work. However, if you were really good at making tea, you’d be stuck doing it forever.
So my dad decided to experiment. He started making tea that was poorly made, overly milky, too strong. Sure enough, his teammates would spit out the tea, and ask him to do another. But after the second round of poor tea-making, they gave up. “Steve,” they said, “that’s it, don’t even bother.”
My younger self appreciated this school of life wisdom. What my dad was demonstrating was what could be termed weaponized incompetence, the act of deliberately performing a task poorly to avoid doing it. What my dad was doing was lighthearted and something he later told his friends, to their laughter. However, in different areas of life, weaponized incompetence can take on a darker edge. Learn all about this subtle form of trickery, and how to handle it.
What Is Weaponized Incompetence?
The origin of weaponized incompetence is likely a 2008 Wall Street Journal article, The Art of Showing Pure Incompetence At an Unwanted Task, which coined the term strategic incompetence. That article focused on deliberate incompetence in the workplace setting. However, in recent years, weaponized incompetence has found viral fame on social media platforms, like TikTok, linked to romantic relationships and toxic masculinity.
In this context, weaponized incompetence is a way for someone to avoid unwanted tasks, such as household chores, by placing the emotional labor onto their partner. Emotional labor is another hot-button topic, which describes invisible tasks that are undertaken, mostly by women, in order to appease or keep functionality flowing in work or in personal relationships. In Fair Play, which tackles gender inequality, Eve Rodksy captures this imbalance when she writes:
“Seventy-eight percent of moms say they are so busy maintaining family stability by being constantly available, mentally and physically, to deal with every detail of home life that they aren’t taking care of themselves.”
Is Weaponized Incompetence Abuse?
Weaponized incompetence has been linked to emotional abuse, gaslighting, and other forms of manipulation. It’s worth noting that often these types of behavior are subconscious, and not done deliberately; someone may have learned the behavior from their parents (don’t ask me to make you a cup of tea!), or have developed the habit of avoidance without being clear about why that is. In that sense, performing tasks poorly could be learned helplessness.
However, there is a risk of weaponized incompetence entering abusive territory. If someone deliberately performs a task poorly, and denies it or shifts blame on the other person when this is called out, it could be gaslighting. Equally, if someone resorts to flattery (“you’re so much more skilled than I am”), or overemphasizes their inadequacy (“this will take me a while” or “I struggle with this more than you,”) it could be manipulation through guilt-tripping.
Either way, any way of avoiding responsibility, without creating an even give and take or meeting personal obligations, is a red flag that deserves deeper exploration.
Where Does Weaponized Incompetence Happen?
Weaponized incompetence occurs in lots of relationship dynamics — between romantic partners, in workplace settings, between parents and children, siblings, or friends. It can even find its way into therapeutic relationships, such as with coaches or therapists who have clients who don’t maintain accountability or demonstrate inner resourcefulness. It may occur as a one-off or indicate a deeper, habitual form of behavior.
Examples of Weaponised Incompetence
Weaponized incompetence comes in many forms. People may outright refuse to perform a task, make a lot of noise and drama about performing a task, perform a task poorly (such as going grocery shopping and “forgetting” key items), or emphasize how much better the task would be performed by someone else. Examples include:
- In relationships: I’m drinking coffee as I write. My partner made my coffee. The coffee is delicious. However, at her apartment, her coffee machine is complicated; it takes a while to grind the beans, foam the milk, and operate it in the right way. It takes a solid 20 minutes. I also have an espresso machine at home, and have learned how to use it. Not learning, being dramatic if ever I have to make it, and encouraging my partner to make it, instead, would enter the realm of weaponized incompetence.
- In work: projects that require teamwork run the risk of weaponized incompetence. For example, if there are menial tasks, such as updating spreadsheets, and someone takes too long and disrupts the workflow for others, a colleague may jump in, and choose to do it instead.
- In shared living: having housemates requires a delegation of tasks, such as cleaning. If someone is generally slow to clean up, and when they do, don’t clean properly, or rush the job, it may encourage other housemates to do it instead, or end up doing the job a second time.
How to Deal With Weaponised Incompetence
Start by exploring whether you are on the receiving end of weaponized incompetence, or enacting it yourself. It’s entirely possible that you engage in behaviors that cover the definition, from time to time. When I discovered the term, I reflected uncomfortably on times when I’ve avoided tasks in a way that was manipulative, even if that was subtle and not deliberate. All of us are capable of slipping into this territory.
When it comes to your own behavior, reflect on how you perform certain tasks, with self-honesty. Do you ever avoid making an additional effort, knowing someone else will step in? Are there things you could learn to make it easier for others, or areas you could improve your efficiency?
When considering other people’s behavior, the first step is to consider how frequent and obvious weaponized incompetence is. It’s tempting to jump to conclusions and assume emotional abuse, but remember, for a lot of people, the behavior is unconscious. With that in mind, some steps to follow are:
1. Consider Why the Behavior Is Upsetting
When you first become aware of types of unhealthy behavior, the first response of anger is understandable. We’re all becoming more switched on to the nuances of communication, and unhealthy dynamics. What was normalized and unseen years ago now has a label and a stream of blogs about it online. Without attempting to classify all types of behavior, consider why this specific behavior, in your specific context, is upsetting.
For example, let’s say your partner regularly forgets items on the grocery list. There are a number of reasons this might be frustrating — it might indicate negligence on their side, or it may leave you the person responsible for sorting the situation. You may frequently do the shopping, and only occasionally rely on them to help out.
Below the surface, you may feel unseen, undervalued, or all sorts of heartfelt and genuine emotions. This is the core of the upset; tap into it, because it’s the deeper truth of why these behaviors are unhealthy in any relationship.
Do your best to address weaponized incompetence with integrity. Being angry or upset in a moment is fine. But set the environment for a conversation where you can enquire, without making assumptions. Ask questions. Get curious. Share your pain points. Avoid using the term itself. For example, you might say, “I struggle that when you do the shopping, you often forget groceries. Please can you be more careful?”
Ideally, the other person will respond positively, explaining their reasoning. It could be that they’re oblivious to the knock-on effect of forgetting a thing or two, and simply being aware may change the behavior. It’s a red flag if the person is overly defensive or dismisses what is communicated.
3. Set Boundaries
Once you’ve communicated what behaviors aren’t desirable, and why, the next step is to set boundaries. They’re a way of essentially saying what you do or don’t tolerate, and what you’ll do in response. Boundaries can be hard, soft, or somewhere in between. For example, you may say that grocery shopping is split 50/50, and if essential items are forgotten, it’s that person’s responsibility to go back and get them.
4. Consider Negotiable and Non-Negotiable Competencies
Each person in any relationship has to be able to ask for what they need, related to competency. It’s okay for competency levels to be unequal in different areas, as long as it roughly balances out. In a romantic relationship, someone might be better with DIY, someone might be better at cooking, and that’s healthy. The issue is when one person feels neglected or unsupported due to the other person’s incompetency. Knowing where those areas are is key.
5. Decide What to Do if Things Don’t Change
If you give someone the benefit of the doubt, an opportunity to communicate, and chance to adjust their behavior, there’s not much else you can do. How that person responds will be a big indication of their original motivation for committing weaponized incompetence. It could even be that you decide it is better to find other solutions; if your partner is awful at cleaning, maybe they offer to hire a cleaner, so the job still gets done.
But if things don’t change, and the situation remains the same, with that person still committing the same behavioral hiccups, then it’s time to consider how much of a dealbreaker it is for the relationship. The occasional milky or overly brewed tea is forgivable. But a complete lack of support in non-negotiable areas may cause the relationship to end.
Have patience, and find a balanced approach. But don’t overlook the power of the opposite of weaponized competence, what I’d call mutual competence, a sense of togetherness and teamwork, where combined, you’re stronger than alone.