What is weaponized incompetence?

Do they lack the skill or just avoid it?

Weaponized incompetence, also known as strategic incompetence, occurs when someone consciously or unconsciously demonstrates their incompetence to perform or master a certain task, thereby leading others to take on more of the work. This typically occurs between partners at home and colleagues at work. When incompetence is used as a weapon, the result is an unequal division of labor.

In the work environment, individuals may use their incompetence as a weapon to avoid responsibility or obligations. In some workplaces, managers or employees may intentionally pretend to perform poorly or be incompetent in order to avoid difficult tasks or shift the blame onto others. This can result in a toxic work environment and affect overall productivity. For example, someone may pretend they cannot perform a particular task or fulfill an obligation within a group project, shifting the burden onto others. Such behavior not only allows them to avoid work but can also undermine the cohesion and effectiveness of the group. In competitive environments, such as corporate jobs, feigning incompetence may be used as a tactic to undermine the other's team or coworkers and impede progress.

Weaponized incompetence may also occur in interpersonal relationships where one partner intentionally behaves foolishly or pretends not to notice the impact of their actions on others. For example, one person may feign ignorance about hurtful behavior or dismiss their partner's concerns as an overreaction. By denying responsibility or downplaying their actions, they avoid addressing underlying issues or making meaningful changes to improve the relationship. In some cases, they may use their incompetence as a weapon by pretending to forget a conversation, event, or agreement, making the other person question their own memory or judgment. This tactic may be used to undermine someone's credibility, control the narrative, or avoid responsibility for harmful actions.

The term "weaponized incompetence" has gained popularity on social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter, where people share stories of how their partners use this strategy to avoid responsibility. Recently, we have seen many such examples in marriages, where weaponized incompetence can manifest in many different ways, often as a means of manipulation, control, or avoidance of responsibility. One partner often claims that they don't know how to do certain tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, or managing the household, despite being fully competent. Incompetent people screw up basic tasks assigned to them in an attempt to avoid being asked to do the same task again. This behavior causes the other partner in the relationship to bear a disproportionate share of household responsibilities, leaving them overwhelmed and upset.

While weaponized incompetence can affect anyone, it can disproportionately affect women due to traditional gender roles and cultural expectations of women as caregivers and homemakers, Lahily said. "When partners exploit these stereotypes, it creates an environment where women feel they have to accept their partner's perceived incompetence," she added. For example, there are videos of women explaining how their husbands will put the dishes in the washing machine when they ask them to do dishes, or how they will prepare food that is inedible when they are asked to prepare food. Incompetence being used as a weapon also occurs in co-parenting, partners may use their incompetence as a weapon to avoid or get out of household chores, usually while calling themselves the "fun" parent. Such behavior causes wives to take on more responsibility without getting help.

According to de Llano, some sentences that may suggest incompetence used as a weapon:

“I have no idea how to do that, can you do it?”

“I’m really not good at that, you do it so much better.”

“This is your area of expertise, you're so great at it.”

“I can do this, but I’m so slow at it that it’s going to take forever.”

“Remember how bad it was the last time I tried doing it?”

As you begin to recognize patterns in your relationship at work or home, pay attention to the other one's words and actions and your reactions to them. De Llano recommends having an open and honest conversation with the person you see as incompetent. Focus on explaining how their behavior makes you feel and how you can help them meet your needs. Practice active listening, let them express their thoughts and feelings, even if you don't necessarily agree, and try to understand the underlying reasons for their behavior. Clearly define and communicate boundaries and expectations in the relationship. Discuss what you consider to be fair and equitable in terms of responsibilities and try to reach a common understanding at the end of the discussion of what is expected of each of you. If there is no change of action, you may need to rethink your relationship, whether it is professional or personal. Weaponized incompetence becomes a destructive tool that perpetuates imbalance, resentment, and dysfunction. It undermines trust, communication, and mutual respect, ultimately jeopardizing the health and stability of the relationship. Addressing this behavior requires communicating openly and honestly, setting clear boundaries, and seeking professional help if necessary.