Recognising and Addressing Weaponised Incompetence
Aug 10, 2023, 7 min read
Have you ever been convinced that someone is shirking their responsibilities by claiming they either don’t know how to do something, or would not do it well? You may not be imagining it.
If you have not yet heard of weaponised incompetence, we’re shining a light on this common (but rarely discussed) topic to find out how it works, why people do it, why it’s a problem, and what to do about it if you or someone in your life is engaging in weaponised incompetence.
At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about weaponised incompetence or other relationship matters, we’re here to help.
What is weaponised incompetence?
‘Weaponised incompetence’ is a term first coined back in 2007 in a piece for The Wall Street Journal. You may have heard it referred to as ‘strategic incompetence’ instead, or perhaps you have never heard of it at all. But the chances are, you have come across it before.
Weaponised incompetence is when someone consciously or subconsciously claims they don’t know how to do something, or can’t do it well, in order to avoid doing it. This of course results in someone else taking on the task instead.
The term has become popular on TikTok recently, and at the time of writing, the hashtag #weaponizedincompetence has over 68.8 million views on the app. Some examples given there are light hearted and funny, while other examples of weaponised incompetence can deeply affect relationships.
What are some examples of weaponised incompetence?
Weaponised incompetence might include situations like:
- A colleague claiming they don’t know how to change the toner in the printer, and waiting for someone else to do it instead of figuring it out for themselves
- Someone saying they don’t know how to fix a broken appliance in the household and expecting a loved one to step in and help
- Using phrases like “I would do it, but I probably won’t do it as well as you do”
- Someone buying the wrong items or forgetting things at the supermarket (on purpose or by accident) so their partner chooses to do the shopping themselves in future
- Someone avoiding decision-making responsibilities by claiming they don’t fully understand the situation
- A working parent avoiding certain childcare responsibilities by expecting another working parent to take on the bulk of the work
- Someone choosing to take on a creative project that may benefit others, but leaving a mess behind that they expect someone else to clean up
Although weaponised incompetence happens in all walks of life, one of the most common examples of this exists in heterosexual relationships where two partners are sharing (or not sharing, as the case may be) household responsibilities.
YouGov research from 2021 suggests 38% of women who work full-time say they are responsible for most of the housework and childcare, while only 9% of men who work full-time say the same — these figures may not be entirely down to weaponised incompetence, but it is a common factor in relationships that can be addressed.
Why do people do use weaponised incompetence?
People might weaponise incompetence in order to avoid responsibilities because they cannot be bothered doing certain tasks. They may want to avoid feeling uncomfortable, or if they don’t feel they will do things correctly, insecure. In these cases, avoiding the task simply means someone else in their life must shoulder the responsibility instead.
Another possible reason for weaponised incompetence is if someone is seeking attention; by seeming helpless, they elicit a reaction of sympathy and support in certain circumstances. In more sinister cases, weaponised incompetence can be a tactic to maintain control in a relationship.
Is it weaponised incompetence, or just plain old incompetence?
Sometimes there is no weaponising involved, and someone may truly struggle to carry out a task. If your partner or someone in your life really feels they are lacking a skill or ability in order to provide support in certain areas, they should communicate this to you and show they are willing to learn or make changes to help you more.
It is important to note that weaponised incompetence is something many people will have used themselves, and had used against them. It does not always mean you or your partner are being manipulative or deliberately mean. Often incompetence is unintended and people don't realise they are doing it.
Recognising weaponised incompetence in yourself isn’t about admitting you are a bad person, it is simply realising you may be causing stress to a loved one, and choosing to take more responsibility in future to ease the burden on those around you.
Why is weaponised incompetence a problem in relationships?
It may seem insignificant in the moment, but over months and years, weaponised incompetence can cause major cracks in the foundation of a relationship, particularly if the incompetence is conscious and strategic. When one partner ends up shouldering the majority of the responsibilities that benefit both parties, frustration can start to form.
Partners can begin to notice an imbalance, become resentful, stop trusting they can count on the other person, and harbour a feeling that if they want something done right they have to do it themselves. If you are not communicating effectively with your partner and sharing the responsibilities of life, this can cause conflict and emotional disconnection.
Although there are many other ways weaponised incompetence can affect a romantic relationship, household responsibilities are a major factor. In one 2016 study of 6,300 different-sex couples, researchers found the split of both paid and unpaid labour was more highly associated with the risk of divorce than any other economic factor.
Weaponised incompetence can be found in other areas of life too, such as between colleagues at work. In a workplace environment where two people are hired to do the same or similar jobs, resentment and conflict can form when one takes on the majority of the responsibilities, while the other takes credit for doing an equal share of the work.
What to do if you think your partner might be using weaponised incompetence
Each relationship is entirely different, so you could turn to a therapist or a coach for advice on how best to handle your specific situation if you think there is weaponised incompetence at play in your relationship. If you are looking for more general tips on how to address this with your partner:
- Start paying attention to the behaviours, words used, and reactions to situations. You don’t have to write these down in a formal way, but it can help to make a mental note so you can bring them up later in a calm discussion.
- Have an honest chat where you explain how their actions make you feel, and how you both might be able to address this going forward. Try to avoid having this discussion in the heat of the moment when weaponised incompetence arises. Instead, find a relaxed environment where you can bring it up in a constructive way.
- Be prepared to listen to their side of things. Often there is a root cause for behaviours like weaponised incompetence. For example, they may feel their opinions on raising children are not listened to, or that you disregard their ideas too quickly. Be prepared to acknowledge there may be areas in the relationship you both can improve on.
- Make your expectations known, and compromise. Sometimes we don’t realise we have not clearly communicated what we would like our partner to help with. Define what responsibilities you would like to share, and compromise to find a middle ground.
- Come up with a good way of measuring your progress. A weekly catch-up meeting to check in and ensure tasks are continuing to be split equally can help you both feel in control and engaged in all parts of your relationship. If something isn’t working, be prepared to adapt the plan.
What to do if you think you might be using weaponised incompetence yourself
Again, every relationship is unique and therefore could benefit from bespoke advice from a qualified professional, but in general, you can take some first steps to address your own weaponised incompetence if you recognise it in yourself.
It can be really difficult to accept that — consciously or subconsciously — you have been using weaponised incompetence to avoid certain things in daily life. Remember this does not always mean you have been deliberately manipulative, but if you think you may have engaged in these behaviours, note what situations bring out this side of you and prepare to take on more of the responsibility next time they arise.
If you feel comfortable doing so, you may wish to discuss it with your partner and try the steps mentioned above to improve your communication and create a more equal split when it comes to life’s responsibilities.
How to work through weaponised incompetence as a couple
If you feel improvements could be made in your relationship to avoid instances of weaponised incompetence, or address a history of it, working with a qualified professional could help. Your therapist can provide an open space for you both to talk about how you feel, and offer useful exercises to open up communication and encourage more support in the relationship. One example of a successful intervention detailed in Psychology Today (which uses pseudonyms to protect identities) resulted in a positive outcome for the couple:
“Soojin had to see the ways in which she was re-playing her childhood script: taking on more than her share and not expecting that she could effectively ask for what she needed… [Jay] became aware that unlike what he'd seen in his parents' relationship, he needed to strike a balanced partnership in terms of household and kid duties if they were to make progress as a couple… They made a plan to sit down every Sunday afternoon and jointly create a list for the week.”
If you are interested in addressing weaponised incompetence or other relationship imbalances with the help of a professional, or just have a question about mental health, like coping with separation anxiety in a relationship, we’re here to assist on your journey. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists to answer your questions and discuss next steps.
Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from private mental health assessments and reviews, to finding qualified and approved mental health professionals for the support you need.