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The Challenge of Negotiating with Incompetent-Behaving People

Bertrand Russell: "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people are so full of doubts."

Charles Darwin: "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."

75% of people quit their jobs because of their direct line manager.

65% of Americans say they would rather change their boss than get a pay raise.

Negotiating and persuading are challenging skills. What makes these skills even more challenging is dealing with folks who are incompetent in their present job. In fact, Cornell University Researcher David Dunning speculates that approximately 18% of people in their present “white collar” jobs are incompetent. Note that he is not saying these folks are incompetent. He is saying they are performing incompetently in their present jobs.

First, the Research on Incompetence

According to Decision Lab:

Two psychologists David Dunning and Dr. Justin Kruger began to study incompetence in 1999. They soon found out that people who were the most confident about their skills or knowledge, should not be. People often are unskilled and unaware of it.

One study collected a group of people. Some who felt they were excellent judges on humor; that is, which jokes would people find humorous, turned out to be the worst at it. In other studies, people who scored least in many of the tests were the most confident. They simply did not have the skills to assess their abilities.

This phenomenon was named the Dunning-Kruger effect (DK). DK, in psychology, a cognitive bias whereby people with limited knowledge or competence in a given intellectual or social domain greatly overestimate their own knowledge or competence in that domain relative to objective criteria or to the performance of their peers or of people in general.

The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when a person’s lack of knowledge and skills in a certain area cause them to overestimate their own competence. The so called “incompetent” do not have the skills to recognize their own incompetence. They do not have the skills of comparison. They think they are doing well, but they may be performing average or below average.

How Are People Placed in Jobs to Which They Are Incompetent?

There are a myriad of reasons that explains this phenomenon.

“The Peter principle states that a person who is competent at their job will earn a promotion to a position that requires different skills. If the promoted person lacks the skills required for the new role, they will be incompetent at the new level, and will not be promoted again.[1] If the person is competent in the new role, they will be promoted again and will continue to be promoted until reaching a level at which they are incompetent. Being incompetent, the individual will not qualify for promotion again, and so will remain stuck at this "Final Placement" or "Peter's Plateau."

This outcome is inevitable, given enough time and enough positions in the hierarchy to which competent employees may be promoted. The "Peter Principle" is therefore expressed as: "In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." This leads to Peter's Corollary: "In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties." Hull calls the study of how hierarchies work "hierarchiology."

Inability to Detect Incompetence.

Author Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic claims that there is the inability to detect incompetence. Character flaws “are disguised as attractive leadership qualities…such as traits like overconfidence and self-absorption.” These two characteristics should be viewed as “red flags.”


It is estimated that 90% of hirees is known in some way by the hirer.


Scott Eastwood may be a great actor. At the same time, most significantly is the fact that Scott is the son of Clint Eastwood. This, plus his being rich and handsome all lead to his present success.


Think of many commercials, especially home improvement. More likely than not, the spokesperson is a white male in his late 20’s or early 30’s.

Some have alleged that the candidate with the most hair, wins elections.

Some say that the tallest candidate gets elected. Americans are using their ancient instincts even if the person is unqualified or poorly qualified.


This affiliation may be geographical regions, education, fraternities, sororities.

EX: One university has 11 deans. Six of them have a military background as does the main dean. Is this coincidental? One must presume, no.

EX: In DC, a board nominee seeks confirmation from the DC Council. One council member remarks that the nominee is from Ohio and so is the council member. He says, I surely will vote for a fellow Ohioian.

People seem to prefer people like them. Think of politics where the politician must love the local sports team or food.

The Metrics of Climbing the Corporate Ladder: the Process.

Most workers want to climb the corporate or association ladder. This climb results in more power, prestige, and money. But, what are the metrics for the climb and how does that contribute to the incompetency situation.

EX: A is hired by a corporation because of their computer or IT skills. A soon learns that the way to get raises and get promoted is to supervise more folks. So, after four years, A is supervising a group of 30 workers. The trouble is that A does not have supervisory skills. That was not why he was hired. So, now many consider A to be incompetent.

The remedy is for corporations to create new metrics for promotion. In the case again, A should have been promoted and given raises as A acquired more technical skills, not more supervisees.

Fear of Conflict

Most people dread or fear conflict so many conflicts remain unresolved. The so-called “bad employee” is simply moved about.

EX: “Bad employee” A disrespected their boss by throwing objects at the boss, cursing at the boss, being late for meetings with the boss. What happened: A was transferred to another boss.

EX: Think of the transfer of school personnel or church personnel even in child abuse cases.

EX: A supervisor discriminates against an older worker. This supervisor prefers employees who are “up and at 'em.” The older worker is then transferred to a nondiscriminatory supervisor and the bad supervisor remains.

EX: A screams and shouts at B in front of B’s supervisees. Their overall supervisor advises A and B to stay away from each other.

The Devil You Know Effect/Approach

Collins Dictionary defines this phenomenon as: “What does the phrase the devil you know mean?"

Definition of it's better the devil you know than the devil you don't, which means it is better to deal with a difficult person or situation one knows than with a new person or situation that could be worse.

This means that some folks who are incompetent in their present jobs are not only retained but sometimes promoted because of this approach.

Fear of Change

Research seems to show that approximately 1/3 of professionals hate change. They hate change so much that they tolerate people who are incompetent in their jobs rather than change with other possibly more competent folks.

Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life, published on September 8, 1998, is a bestselling seminal work and motivational business fable by Spencer Johnson.

Incompetence Hiring Incompetence

In addition to the above reasons, it is speculated that those who are incompetent may be attracted to similar qualities in others and thus hire and promote folks who are similar.

Employers Confusing Narcissistic Behaviors with Competence

Narcissistic behaviors lead employers and those who hire to believe the person is smarter than what they really are.

- They perpetually correct grammar even when it is impolite or there is no need.

- They use words incorrectly especially if they are outside their field of study.

- They attack people instead of the argument.

- They claim to always be using logic and reason.

- They lie about their intelligence citing tests that they have taken in the past.

- They pretend to know everything.

Interestingly, maybe oddly, often employers confuse the above behaviors with competence.

How Do Effective Negotiators Deal With Incompetency?

Be aware. First, be aware that approximately 18% of the folks with whom one is dealing may be classified as incompetent in their present job for many of the above reasons.

Do not judge. Noting the above reasons, people are incompetent in their jobs for a variety of complex reasons so the better approach is to better understand.

Do not try to change them into competency. In most occasions, one does not have power or control, maybe not even influence over those who are incompetent.

Help them. Possibly, the best way is to assist them; to provide them with more information. For example, in the ideal negotiation the responsibility is 50/50 if there are two parties. If one is negotiating with a person who is incompetent in their present job, one may have to take on an increased burden which is necessary if the goal is to be achieved.


The solutions are complex. Among them:

- Create well designed and effectively operating conflict resolution systems so instead of avoiding conflicts, one can not only resolve them but prevent them.

- Foster a culture where competition for jobs is broad and deep.

In addition:

- Have the wisdom to be able to say I don’t know. See humility as a virtue.

- Development knowledge.

- Watch out for confirmation bias.

- Do not argue. Treat all others with respect. Work together to find a mutual understanding.

- Always admit that you may be wrong and may be subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect.


Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us, Brian Klaas.

Dunning Effect

See Recommended Books under “Blogs” drop down menu. Clicking on any book will lead one to the discounted Amazon site.

Roy J. Lewicki is the author of 'Essentials of Negotiation', published 2015 under ISBN 9780077862466 and ISBN 0077862465. Publisher: McGraw Hill Higher Education

The Conflict Resolution Training Program, Leader’s Manual, ISBN: 0-7879-6077-2. Prudence Bowman Kestner and Larry Ray

5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.

Getting Your Way Every Day


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