Most of you probably remember a boss who everyone else knew was totally unqualified for the job. You know the type. You can almost see an “out to lunch” sign go off inside his head when business details are being discussed. But is there anything you can do when a boss is so incompetent?
These bosses are extremely frustrating, because they don’t know how much they don’t know. Even if everyone else knows it. But the nasty little non-secret eludes this type of boss completely. He’s in the dark groping around without a flashlight. Yet he thinks he’s doing great — and the sun is shining!
How an incompetent boss affects his staff
It’s true that the staff of a bumbling boss often shine brightly, because they get to save the day. And everyone (other than the boss) knows who’s really doing the work. But the maddening part of this is that these bosses rarely get fired. And when a boss is so incompetent, much of the time may be spent trying to cover up the truth — especially from him.
So there you are as a staff member, doing all the work. And while getting unofficial recognition, still having to report to someone who is incompetent and driving you crazy. Meanwhile, you have to follow schemes that have been concocted by someone without a clue.
Upper management may or may not know. But in order for them to rationalize keeping the guy in place, you don’t get the credit you deserve. Why do these bumblers get to stay? Sometimes it’s just office politics — or who they know. Then again, it may be the result of well-meaning staff, just trying to do their best. And meanwhile covering his you-know-what.
Gary’s painfully unqualified boss
Gary, a friend of mine, once worked for someone like this. He used to regale me with stories of amazing incompetence and downright stupidity. His boss couldn’t even fake it well. And he barely understood the products the staff members turned out. Yet that didn’t stop him from strutting like a peacock when things went well.
In meetings, buoyed by his cluelessness, his boss insisted on presenting the complex materials himself. Then when the president of the company turned to Gary’s boss for clarification of certain points, his boss was too stupid to realize that he couldn’t answer the questions correctly. As a result, he often unknowingly committed his staff to projects and deadlines that were completely impossible.
On paper, Gary’s boss had all the qualifications. His business card listed “M.B.A, Ph.D., and J.D.” Was this even possible? Somehow, his boss was able to do well when it came to classroom tests. But he failed miserably when business reality –and the need for common sense — entered the picture. Gary used to say his boss should add “I.D.I.O.T.” to his list of credentials.
So what should you do when a boss is so incompetent?
Well, initially you probably need to decide whether to carry him despite his cluelessness or throw him to the wolves. Then again, it simply might be time to move on and find a new job. Let’s look at the different possibilities:
1. Keep supporting the I.D.I.O.T. as best you can.
Not only are you honing your skills for the next job, but you may just make some valuable connections internally based on being a team player. Meanwhile, you can also try to learn more about your boss.
And while you are searching for some of his (or her) strengths, you might just learn enough good points to make peace with supporting him. At least for now. I’ve actually had that happen, although it took some work — and lots of patience!
2. Go to the mattresses. It’s war!
Maybe you’re someone who enjoys a good fight. And you want to dig in and try to topple the guy, for the sake of the company as well as yourself. Well, that’s a choice you have every right to make.
But make sure you have strong allies (who aren’t playing you). Also make sure you’re prepared to leave if you fail — with some pretty iffy references.
Just remember … if he’s being protected, you may not be able to get him booted out. And even If he’s not being protected, his one skill may be razor-sharp office politics.
3. Move on to a new job without an idiot boss.
Leaving is always an option. And for some it’s the right choice. Especially if you have no room to maneuver or grow. But, of course, you never know what you’ll find in the next job.
Not that all bosses are stupid.
But if they aren’t stupid, then they might be micro managers or they don’t give you enough responsibility or they play their own games or (fill in the blank). So you may want to at least stay a while, and grow your resume all you can where you are.
One last “hail Mary play” possibility
Now, I’m not suggesting you can always pull off this particular course of action. But this really happened to me, so I might as well tell you. You never know when opportunity presents itself.
Years ago, I had a boss who was a nightmare to most of his staff. For some reason, he treated me well. If you can consider making me listen to his daily griping and “they done me wrong” stories treating me well.
But, I had my eye on the long game. So I supported him. And I did my best to take on things that interested me and that showed my skills — and allowed me to form alliances with others. All separate from being a boss’s pet.
One other thing I did — although it was a little sneaky. I listened to him and supported how he felt about the place. But I also encouraged him to move on. When he talked about power players he knew elsewhere, I casually asked about positions they might know about that fit his skills. Places that would appreciate him in a way this job didn’t. And yes … it worked.
A few more thoughts to help make it work for you
In the end, all you care about is doing your best work. And building your resume in case there’s no room for internal movement. If there are people above your boss, they’re probably not oblivious to what’s happening. So things could change. Even if it takes time.
And if he’s the only boss or it’s his company, your job is absolutely to support him and help keep the company going as best you can. In that case, you really have to think about how much you can gain from staying. But there are often ample reasons to at least try to find a relationship you can feel good about.
We already know you can’t change who he is as a person. Worse yet, he probably doesn’t even fully get who he is to outside eyes. All you can do is recognize what you are up against and accept what you can’t change. Then think about what you can change to make your own life easier.
So if you do stay, you and the rest of the staff need to be as supportive as possible. Help him look good where you can. And let him know you’re on his side and can be trusted. That may be fairly rare for him. And this may even make it easier for him to open up and rely on you more for big decisions.
In most cases, you won’t gain anything by undermining this kind of boss or complaining behind his back. But if you stay positive and choose to get the most you can from the situation, you may just reap some interesting rewards.
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