How to Work with Incompetent People and Not be Affected

how to work with incompetent peopleIn my first job out of college, I worked in consulting and used to travel a lot and work late.  One night, three colleagues and I finished work around 9pm and shared a cab back to our hotel.  After being in the cab for 20 min, we knew clearly the cab driver was taking us for a ride for a better fare.  It was another 15 minutes before we got to the hotel.  As soon as we arrived, 3 of us, including me complained to the hotel lobby attendant that our driver was “shady”.  We paid him his fare, $5 more than usual, but got into a heated argument with the driver.  I was upset for at least another 30 min after that.

All this time, I also noticed that my fourth colleague Austin, didn’t seem affected at all.  Next day, I asked him why he was not upset or even affected since the driver was clearly in the wrong.  Here is what he said (paraphrasing)

”There was no need to get upset.  Yes, he probably drove the long way to get paid a few $ more.  We can afford it even if we had to pay it ourselves.  Not worth spending any time or energy being angry.   I cannot change what already happened.”

I remember looking at him, processing what he said.   “But, but, but, he was WRONG.”

He explained, ”Yes, he was.  But it was not worth losing my calm over this.  It doesn’t matter.”

I still remember this after 20 years because it’s still a good lesson to learn and apply in life and at work.  We will always encounter incompetent people in life and at work. The key is we have a choice on deciding whether that person matter or not and then deciding how to react to them. This is especially helpful for us overachievers who worked hard to get to where we are today.  It’s often frustrating and upsetting to see anyone else slack off and get away with it.

Let’s face it.  If we work in any big company, we will work with incompetent people.   Some of them lie to get ahead; some of them barely do any work; and some of them just don’t know what they are doing.  Often times, we get frustrated or upset when working with any of these types of people.   How can we be more like Austin and not be affected?  Here are two realizations and four tips on how to deal with incompetent people at work

Two realizations

  1. You cannot change that person’s incompetence.
  2. Being right is not always worth it.  Don’t sacrifice your peace of mind or effort in inconsequential situations.

Four tips on how to deal next time you encounter an incompetent person

  1. Assess whether this person really matters.  Many times it’s not worth worrying about a person’s incompetence. For example, a person you have to deal with only once or infrequently like this taxi driver or a person you can work around.
  2. Let it go, like Austin did.  Be smart about where you spend your emotional or professional energy.  You are the one that pays the price and suffers when you let an inconsequential situation or person bother you.  It’s literally not worth it. It’s okay to let someone wrong you in a small matter like charging a few more dollars on a taxi fare.  If you let it stick to you for another hour, you just decided to waste another hour of your energy on top of already “paying the price” when it first happened
  3. Work around incompetent people.   Think of ways to work around these kind of people.  Since you cannot change them, the effort to work around them, even do part of their work, may take less effort than working with them.
  4. If the incompetent people are your boss or important leaders that matter to your career, then it’s time to find another job.  You will not be able to ignore them or work around them, so do the only thing you have control over – find another department or company with better leaders.   More than 50% of your job satisfaction comes from working with great managers and leaders.  When you can no longer respect your leader or manager, your best next step is to put in serious effort to look for another position.  When you are making progress there, you will be able to deal more calmly with the incompetence in the short term as you know it’s not forever. 😉

Your comment:  How are you dealing with incompetent people at work?  Does this story help?  What other tips do you have to share with others?  I look forward to your questions and comments

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I work in fast food and deal with incompetent customers everyday, I see the need to work on this problem for my level of frustration and self control is hitting an all high. Thank you for writing these articles it is just the tools I need to help me be a happier me.

Dear Lei,
I read the article how to work with incompetent people. The story of Austin is really good and it gave me the insight how to deal with such people.Changing Job seems good idea as we cannot change the boss.

Sharon Stone

This was a great article