The Five Levels of Incompetence

In my “Learning and Teaching” post last week, I talked about the different stages of learning, from “unconscious incompetence” up to “unconscious competence.” It occurred to me today, though, that there really are different levels within those levels and, in particular, there are some very distinct levels of incompetence that I’ve encountered in my nearly (yikes!) two decades of working in the industry. The reason why the levels of incompetence are somewhat more important than the various levels of competence, it seems to me, is that incompetent people are often a very real threat to the stability of teams that they work in, while competent people usually aren’t.

The five levels of incompetence are, in increasing order of danger:


Level 1: The N00b.

There’s not much to say about the n00b since, let’s face it, we’ve all been there. Hiring n00bs is unavoidable in most situations. Being a n00b is a basic fact of life.

Danger: Low, assuming that they are properly sandboxed or are experienced enough to sandbox themselves. (Otherwise, they’re likely to hit “launch” instead of “lunch” and then you’re really in trouble.)


Level 2: Out of their depth.

Typically, this is someone who’s not really incompetent in general but who’s just been pushed up to a level of responsibility beyond their capabilities (a.k.a. a victim of the Peter Principle.). I’ve seen this happen most often in situations where a senior, experienced person leaves the team and the leadership decides that they have to put someone equally senior in their place regardless of whether that person can, you know, actually do the job. So they pluck someone who’s senior but not as experienced and plops them into the departing person’s chair.

Danger: Moderate. Because the person isn’t completely incompetent, they tend to be able to give the appearance of competence and avoid leading the team totally off the rails but usually end up leading the team in circles. So the team doesn’t make any forward progress and people eventually wise up and leave.


Level 3: Dumb and Dumber.

Now we start getting into the fun levels. This person is just plain incompetent, someone placed into a totally inappropriate position for them (which, for the most part, is going to be any position). I’ve actually encountered very few instances of this in my career, and it usually happens when someone transfers between two wildly different kinds of jobs. That tends to mask, for a little while anyway, their completely lack of ability to actually do anything under the guise of just being a n00b.

Danger: High to moderate. It really depends on how fast everyone figures out just how incompetent the person is-usually, truly incompetent people get shunted aside as soon as everyone figures out what’s going on. If that takes too long, competent people tend to get pissed off and leave.


Level 4: Bozo.

The difference between a Bozo and a Dumb and Dumber is that a Bozo is Dumb and Dumber who thinks he is competent. Bozo’s tend to believe that they are as good or better than everyone else, deserve special treatment, and that their genius is being under-rewarded. And they ignore the fact that they have absolutely no idea what they are doing.

My best Bozo story is a Program Manager that I worked with a long time ago. I implemented a feature he specified. He entered a bug saying that the feature didn’t work correctly. I resolved the bug “by design” after I verified that the feature worked exactly the way he specified it. He then came to my office and started to argue with me that I shouldn’t have resolved the bug “by design,” because the feature didn’t work correctly. Finally, I pulled out a copy of his specification and pointed at the paragraph that said exactly how the feature should work. He then got totally exasperated with me and started ranting that I was supposed to implement the feature “the way he wanted the feature to work, not the way he specified it!”

Danger: High. Bozos are always on the lookout to get ahead (in line with their great abilities), so they often manage to worm their way in to management positions. They then tend to lead the team the way Mr. Toad drives motorcars: careening all over the road until they finally end up in the ditch. Bozo’s are adept at bringing down even the most experienced team in a surprisingly short amount of time.


Level 5: Evil Genius.

I was debating whether this is even a level of incompetence at all, because in many ways Evil Geniuses are not incompetent people. Quite the contrary, they are often quite adept at many things, including manipulation, spin, intimidation, self-aggrandizement, and sucking up. But I think in a deep sense, Evil Geniuses are just a more highly evolved form of Bozos because the end result tends to be the same: the team blows up in a very spectacular way. However, while a Bozo usually does this in a totally oblivious way (“What happened?”), it’s often all part of an Evil Genius’s plan to use the force of the explosion to propel them ever higher. These are the kind of guys who end up running major corporations and then running them totally into the ground. And then jumping ship to run an even bigger corporation. But, at the core, I think that Evil Geniuses act this way because they couldn’t actually figure out h
ow to do things in an above-board manner. Thankfully, I’ve met very few Evil Geniuses in my day. And those I have met, I’ve been able to largely avoid.

2 thoughts on “The Five Levels of Incompetence

  1. Lunda

    I love it! Bozos for me are the most bothersome because they actually go out of their way to show you how much of a bozo they are! They give the outward appearance of smartness (or are genuinely smart) but believe they are the best at *everything*. You’re constantly covering their a55 but they don’t realise it or even appreciate it when you point it out to them. I’m thinking of trying the strategy of pointing out the opposite of what actually needs to happen in the hope that the bozo will disagree and do it right! Lol!


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