Q. Am I really incompetent?
Q. I’m pretty sure I’m not.
That’s not a question, but I’ll let it go. You think you’re good at your job because you lack the skills to form an accurate assessment of your abilities. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. You wouldn’t know “competent” if it hit you in the face.
Q. Then how come you’re the first person to notice?
I’m not. I’m just the first person to mention it. It’s likely that every competent person working for you has figured it out, but has thus far been too polite to mention it. To you, at least.
Q. You mean they talk about this behind my back?
Oh yes. It is common knowledge.
Q. But I’m successful. If I’m incompetent, why hasn’t my boss noticed?
It may be that your boss is incompetent too.
Q. Then how come my boss is even more successful than me?
It is surprising quite how many people manage career success in the total absence of ability. You’ve probably been getting the credit for all the work done on your behalf by the very people who are too polite to expose you. They are not well rewarded for this, because the person who is supposed to look out for them is totally incompetent.
Q. You’re telling me that market economies are not perfectly meritocratic?
When our parents tell us “life isn’t fair,” this is the situation to which they are alluding.
Q. That’s awkward. Even so, I’m pretty sure there are things I’m good at.
There are. The combination of tasks and activities known collectively as “your job” is not one of them.
Q. That’s harsh…
Q. So where do we go from here?
Keep your head down. The chances are you’ll get away with it. In time you’ll make the subtle adjustment to measuring your self-worth in terms of how much you get paid instead of whatever you previously thought yourself able to accomplish.
Q. Isn’t that a terribly depressing way to live?
It is for the competent among your staff who are carrying the whole enterprise while struggling to make ends meet.
Q. What do I do if anybody notices?
Your boss won’t notice because your competent staff are doing your job for you. Your staff have already noticed, so don’t worry about them. If one of them looks like they’re about to bring it up, delegate your entire job to them, and then micromanage them so you feel busy and in touch with what’s happening. You’ve probably done this part already.
Q. What then?
Wait for something to go wrong. You’ve already set up your scapegoat. It’s time to take the credit for exposing them.
Q. Won’t that leave my department with even fewer competent people?
Yes. It’s ultimately unsustainable (which is why large companies eventually fail) but it happens on a timescale which allows you to accumulate both wealth and prestige.
Q. So I get to keep my job?
Oh yes. “Failing up” is what management careers are made of.
See also: You’re Wrong: an F.A.Q.