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'They're So Incompetent!' Think Again

Truly understanding why people may not be cutting it at work.

When working with someone—an employee, colleague, boss, whomever—many times we get frustrated and just can't believe the company would hire someone this incompetent. Too often, however, we jump to that conclusion too quickly.

It's important that we challenge ourselves to take a step back and actually consider what is going on. There are many reasons why people may not be meeting expectations. Being able to truly understand what the issue is is important to not only to solve it but also to keep strong working relationships.

Source: Jopwell/Pexels
Source: Jopwell/Pexels

"Fact" Finding

Listen, no really listen. This is not a time for you to suggest why you are right. Try to remove yourself and what's at stake for you emotionally and try to do some 'fact' finding. I write "fact" in quotations because in this situation, there aren't likely actual facts, just perspectives. Both perspectives are true but doesn't mean one is a fact. So removing the need to find out who was right or who was wrong—and moving towards understanding another's point of view—frees up the conversation from conflict and defensive responses.

Delving into understanding the other person's perspective will help you determine what the true issue is. For example, you may think the individual is procrastinating and is always pushing deadlines, but they may actually say that slow technology or bottlenecks prevent them from doing the work faster.

Then once you feel you understand the issue, clarify, and dig deeper. Clarify by reframing or reflecting what you heard to ensure it's truly what they meant. You may find that in clarifying that you interpret things wrong and defenses go up. If language becomes about facts/truths steer it towards perceptions/opinions, instead of blame, discuss your own contributions, instead of accusing discuss how it made you feel.

The purpose of digging deeper is to determine root causes. These root causes may help you gain insights into why other issues are also arising. For example, in the previously discussed slow technology example, this root cause may also be causing other colleagues' frustration or may be linked to inefficient workarounds. Determining the root cause can potentially help you save time because then you will see adjacent or related issues that can get fixed simultaneously.

Once you have truly listened, clarified, and found root causes, you can categorize the problem as either a Skill, Will, or Hill problem. That is, is the person missing the Skill required to complete the task? Do they know how to do the task but have a personal reason as to why they don't have the Will to do it? Or do they have the Skill and Will to complete it but some Hill is getting in their way?

Here are some tips of what to listen for to determine if the root cause is Skill, Will, or Hill:


  • I don't understand
  • I'm trying
  • I thought I was doing it correctly


  • That's not what I was told to do
  • It's never worth it
  • What's the point?
  • Nothing comes from it


  • I'm waiting for
  • I'm stuck at this step
  • I need to do that by hand
  • I don’t have enough time
Source: Pixabay/Pexels
Source: Pixabay/Pexels

You can sometimes be faced with more than one of these. For example, maybe they don’t have the right technology so they disengage and doesn't want to do the task entirely because of the workarounds required. But it's important to understand the true root came from the Hill, not the Will. Without doing the "fact" finding we often jump to Will conclusion, while it is rarely actually the Will issue. Most people want to succeed and achieve. Having barriers from preventing them to do that is more likely why they lose their Will rather than an intrinsic trait.

Now that you have clarified, developed an understanding, and got to a root cause, then share your viewpoint. Waiting to share your viewpoint helps ensure the conversation is open and rapport is established. But it's also important for them to understand the perceived impact their choices or behaviours are causing. If possible, before this conversation, also try to understand if there are deeper root causes or emotions tied to the conversation that you can be open about. For example, their late submission causes you to feel rushed and you worry that you will make a mistake and be perceived as incompetent. When both people feel heard, only then you can move to the next steps and potential options.

Next Steps

Depending on what the root cause is, there are various solutions that can be utilized. Here are some examples:


  • Training
  • Shadowing
  • Be very clear on goals, timing, budget, etc. Think SMART goals.
  • Provide frequent feedback for learning
  • Praise and reward when achievements have been made


  • Understand what motivates the person
  • Discuss why the task is important and why they are the best to achieve it
  • Because the person is competent, give them more autonomy/responsibility
  • Praise and reward success


  • Break down silos
  • Redesign the process
  • Build a business case for new technology
  • Escalate issue for resolution

Ensure that any actions are mutually agreed upon and that you understand "who is doing what when." Set a date to follow up and see if things have been resolved. Overall, you should find that your own work experience will be enhanced because you have stronger working relationships, feel like you achieved something by solving a problem, and feel like you can be more open and authentic at work.