Wellness·4 min read

Weaponized Incompetence is Real — Here's How to Deal with It

A person washing dishes
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
Jul 7, 2022

TikTok has taught us a lot. Like how to actually open popsicles, what ADHD looks like in women, and what “weaponized incompetence” is — which has 62.8 million views on TikTok as of this article’s publication.

ICYMI: Weaponized incompetence is the subtle strategy of appearing incapable of doing a task so the burden falls on someone else. Often a partner. We turned to Nadine Shaanta Murshid PhD, associate professor of social work at University at Buffalo, to help us break down how to spot it, and how to deal with it. 

Let’s start with the basics. What does weaponized incompetence mean?

Weaponized incompetence (also called strategic incompetence) is when someone does something badly on purpose or claims they don’t know how to do something so that the burden falls on someone else. Think: Asking for a map of the grocery store instead of just a list. Or claiming you’re just “not good” at changing diapers. And if you’ve ever purposely done a bad job at something just so you’d never be asked again, you might be guilty of it.

“This is something that women have been dealing with all their lives,” said Murshid. “The idea is that men are not good at certain things like domestic labor. And so, why not have women who are good at it, do it, because they're naturally predisposed to being good at this?”

The pandemic put an even bigger spotlight on weaponized incompetence when families and partners were stuck at home together. Especially for couples whose household duties tend to follow gender norms or pay-based norms. Leading to an imbalance of labor. But Murshid noted that while it might be common in cis-hetero relationships, it can happen in any dynamic. Including at work and with friends

What are some examples of weaponized incompetence? 

While weaponized incompetence is often talked about in romantic relationships, it can show up anywhere. And both partners can be guilty of it. According to Murshid, weaponized incompetence is usually a pattern. And you can recognize it because “you will see this behavior over and over again.” Here’s what it can look like in…

  • Romantic relationships: When your partner is on ‘dish duty’ and lets the dishes pile up to the point where you have to step in. 

  • Parenting: When one parent ignores the kids or falls asleep when they were supposed to be on duty, to get the other parent to step in.  

  • Friendships: When your group chat always leans on one friend to organize meet-ups or make reservations so that they don’t have to do the planning. 

  • The workplace: Being asked to do the “caretaker” tasks by coworkers who are equally capable of handling them. Like cleaning up the break room, or always being expected to plan office parties and events. Or being expected to handle conflict between coworkers, said Murshid, while “men are supposed to be doing, I don't know, more important work — which doesn't involve taking care of people.”

What are the red flags for weaponized incompetence?

Keep an eye out for a few key signs in your relationships, family, and workplaces. Like…

  • Being told you’re naturally ‘better’ at a simple chore or task. But the thing you’re ‘better’ at is washing dishes or making reservations for group get-togethers.  

  • Claiming not to know how to do something simple, like do the laundry (when they could figure out the answer by Googling it). 

  • Doing simple tasks (see: unplugging appliances) badly. 

How do I handle weaponized incompetence?

Dealing with conflict is never fun. But here are a few ways you can confront weaponized incompetence. 

  • Communicate. “The first thing would be to try and have a conversation about it,” said Murshid. “Identify it as a problem first, and be gentle, but also say that this is happening, and I don't want that happening anymore.” Yup, it’s an uncomfortable conversation, but it might solve the problem. And having these conversations early can prevent resentment. 

  • Let them figure it out. Personal responsibility is “an important aspect of holding people accountable to changed behavior,” Murshid said. “An aspect of that should be getting them to [the] task on their own, instead of telling them what to do — because that too is work, and requires emotional labor that someone else has to provide.” Another way to do that, according to HuffPost, is by avoiding falling into the ‘I’ll just do it myself’ trap. 

  • Practice setting boundaries. Murshid said to say ‘no,’ when someone tries to evade responsibility with weaponized incompetence. Easier said than done, but it’s worth getting good at. 

theSkimm

Weaponized incompetence might be trending on TikTok, but it’s also a real frustration in relationships and at work. And can perpetuate gender norms, invisible labor, and breed resentment. Your time, energy, and health are valuable. So don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself.

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