HOW TO SURVIVE AN INCOMPETENT BOSS
We have all at one time or another been really disappointed with our boss, if for example it is because we believed that he had made some bad choices, struggled too long with a decision, or promoted someone who was more politician than professional.
It is not unusual to sometimes disagree with what your boss says and does, but this does not necessarily mean that you need to view him as being incompetent, just that he is fallible as are all humans. It is a rare boss who is 100% right 100% of the time.
Unfortunately “The Peter Principle”, which states that ultimately everyone gets promoted beyond their level of ability, is alive and well, meaning that in many organisations there are quite a few people in management roles that are totally out of their depth (see “When you know that managers are amateurs” posted March 19, 2012).
So, what can you do if your boss does continually show that he really is incapable of living up to the needs of the job, and that his lack of leadership and management skills is having a negative impact on the performance and success of his team, of which you are a part ?
Firstly, you have to make sure that your view of your boss being incompetent is realistic and is not just your jaundiced view through either resentment or jealousy. Is it just that your boss is annoying you, picking on you, pushing you harder than you want to be pushed or micromanaging you ? Any of these things on their own may be enough to make you peeved with him, but do not necessarily make him incompetent. Young and ambitious people can build a resentment of their boss that they translate to being due to his incompetence as a way of justifying their own position on things. The competent boss is articulate, inclusive, decisive, focussed on results and inspiring but may still be a pain in the arse. It is only when the boss allows the team to build dysfunctional behaviours through fear, political intrigue, backstabbing, factionalism and lack of purpose that one has the right to conclude that he is incompetent.
Even if you are 100% sure that your boss is incompetent, and even if your evaluation is backed up by solid evidence of his behaviour, you should never indulge in open complaining about him to colleagues. It pays to remember that someone higher up the ladder will have promoted your boss into his current role and will therefore have some personal interest in justifying this decision. This means that he will therefore be likely to protect your boss, particularly from a subordinate bitching over the coffee machine about someone he personally selected for advancement. The old adage “… if you can’t say something nice then don’t say anything” holds very true in this situation. Even if those around you are openly negative about your boss, it is in your own interests to not join in with the herd.
To build a solid career, it is important that you make it about you and not him. It is critical that you focus on your competencies and benefit to the organisation rather than his weaknesses. I have a strong belief that in worthwhile organisations skilled and capable people will ultimately always be valued.
When your boss is struggling, it is a great time to show your leadership skills by compensating for his weaknesses for the benefit of the team. Under these circumstances, it is worthwhile having a discussion with your boss about you expanding your knowledge and learning by “helping him with his workload”. If he really is struggling with the role he will be pleased for the offer of help, and will gladly hand over responsibility for parts of the job to you. This will give you the opportunity to grow your own skills and will also give you a chance to help other members of the team to stay focussed on their roles and on the success of the team. It is important to remember that there is great benefit to your career to be part of a high performing team, irrespective of how good is your boss. A team that is seen as being weak taints all members of the team, not just the weak boss, even if he is the main cause. Focussing on your strengths to help overcome the weaknesses of your boss will help to position you at a senior level by those in the team, who by now will be hungering for some strong leadership and direction. People in the team who positively sing your praises will always outweigh negative discussions about your boss. However, you do need to be careful that you don’t become so indispensable to your boss’s success that he ensures that you never get a chance to move out of your current role.
It is also important at this time that you continue to expand your network within the company. Competent managers are well connected and have a good understanding of different elements of the whole organisation, and it will significantly help your team to have solid links throughout the company as this will work well in your favour when you need things to get done that requires support from people who are outside your immediate ecosystem.
If all this fails, your only choice is to find a strong positive reason for re-assignment, or if that doesn’t work you need to make sure that your CV is up to date (see “Third secret of success” posted October 21, 2010). You do however have to assume that in any standard 35-40 year career not all your bosses will be a source of inspiration and an example of skilled professional management.