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Do You Work With Someone Who Is Incompetent But Can't See It?

A career is all about developing and using your core competencies. But what happens when you work with someone who can't seem to see his or her incompetency?

This is the fellow accountant who thinks he’s the best bean counter ever but can’t add to save his life, or the receptionist who fancies herself a good writer but can’t spell her way out of a paper bag. It's the fellow co-worker who thinks he’s the next Josh Groban when he's really more like The Office's Andy Bernard suffering his way through Rainbow Connection.

This person's co-workers would like to open their mouths to point out what the employee can't seem to see. The tricky part comes at performance review time, or when gently confronting these employees about their productivity-killing ways. “Who, me?! I’m very good at what I do,” they’ll say in an offended, who-are-you-to-tell-me tone. They simply don't see any competency areas they need to improve upon because they're professional prodigies who never make any mistakes. When you try to teach them anything, they’ll say, "Yeah, I know that already" when it’s pretty clear they do not. These employees are supremely overconfident in their glaring underperformance.

How do you deal with this type of employee, whether you’re the boss or a frustrated co-worker?

I wrote on the topic of the myopically incompetent employee back in 2001 as a workplace columnist, and it’s still one of my favorite topics because haven’t we all known someone sort of like this? Lucky for us, there’s someone who researches the topic. To quote, well, myself:
In a series of studies, [Cornell psychology professor David] Dunning and his researchers found that people who scored in the bottom 25 percent on humor, grammar and logic tests consistently overestimated their performance and ability. Although these people's test scores tended to put them in the 12th percentile, they saw themselves ranking around the 62nd percentile-even after they were confronted with the entire group's test results.

These employees will overestimate their abilities even more so if no one ever tells them they're six eggs short of a whole carton, professionally speaking. Anyone who confronts these employees needs to plan ahead by pulling together documentation of their mistakes. Myopically incompetent employees need the cold, hard facts thrown in their face, unfortunately.

You might also put them on a performance review schedule where you check back with them in 45 to 90 days to see if they’re making fewer mistakes, but even then they might be unable to see their own skill deficiencies.

As one of the experts in the article notes, sometimes you can’t save people from themselves. But at least you can give it a try, right?


  1. Thanks for this post, made me laugh as I manage someone who fits the bill.

  2. Glad I made you laugh. I bet you needed one dealing with this type of employee!


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