What Are the Causes of Incompetence in the Workplace?

Inexperience may sometimes look like incompetence.
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It just makes you shake your head. That guy in the office across the hall is an accountant, but every time he gives you facts and figures, they’re wrong. Your boss is a nice guy but his desk is such a disaster area that your team keeps missing deadlines. He can never find anything and can’t even make a decision half the time. In your opinion, these guys are incompetent and should be ushered out of the organization.

Competence Equals Performance

    Competence is the ability to perform well. The term usually refers to skills acquired through education or training and the person is being measured against a standard, such as expectations in a job description. Different jobs have different standards; a psychiatrist who goes around ticking off his patients isn’t usually considered competent, because a psychiatrist is supposed to gain people’s trust and be supportive. A drill sergeant who tongue-lashes his new recruits into obedience gets high marks, however, because his job is to instill discipline in a short time.

Inexperience and Training Issues

    What looks like incompetence may be the result of inexperience, inadequate or incomplete training. A person who is newly graduated or newly hired can’t be expected to just jump in and perform without some training. New employees need orientation to the people, procedures and day-to-day operations of an organization. Professions that rely heavily on specialized knowledge, such as nursing or medicine, often have internships or residencies to help the new graduate acquire the skills he needs.

The Peter Principle

    When you hear someone comment that Dave used to be such a great performer, but in this new job he really just doesn’t seem to be able to cut it, it may be the Peter Principle at work. According to a book written by Dr. Laurence J. Peter, “The Peter Principle,” people are promoted at work because of their competence and good performance. They continue to rise within the organization until they reach a point at which they reach their maximum capability. They perform extremely well at that job, so they are promoted one last time – and it’s a disaster, because the new job needs something they don’t have, so they become incompetent.

Medical Problems

    Incompetence might be the result of a medical problem. A person who has suffered a stroke may become incapable at work in very subtle ways. Transient ischemic attacks, or TIAs, are “mini-strokes” that may go unrecognized except for slight changes in the ability to think. One study of patients with TIAs reported in the 2011 “Canadian Journal of Neuroscience Nursing” found that although 90 percent of the patients seemed quite normal mentally, over half had some sort of cognitive problems.


    Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, can cause all sorts of problems on the job. ADHD isn’t an intelligence problem; it’s a brain disorder that makes it difficult to focus. People with ADHD can be highly educated and have responsible positions, but an ADHD sufferer has trouble juggling multiple balls, is easily distracted and often misses deadlines. With treatment and medication, many people with ADHD are excellent performers. When it comes to ADHD, the problem isn’t competence; the problem is the brain’s malfunctioning wiring system.

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