Everyone complains about his or her boss from time to time. In fact, some consider it a national workplace pastime. But there’s a difference between everyday griping and stressful frustration, just as there is a clear distinction between a manager with a few flaws and one who is incompetent. Dealing with the latter can be anguishing and taxing. But with the right mindset and a few practical tools, you can not only survive but flourish.
What the Experts Say
“Most people have had experience with someone who is incompetent, or at least unhelpful,” says Annie McKee, founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute and co-author of Becoming a Resonant Leader: Develop Your Emotional Intelligence, Renew Your Relationships, Sustain Your Effectiveness. Ineptitude in managers is unfortunately common. McKee says that’s because too many companies promote people for the wrong reasons. People get ahead because they show results or have the right technical capabilities, but they often don’t have the requisite people skills. Michael Useem, the William and Jacalyn Egan Professor of Management at the Wharton School and author of Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win says that whether your boss lacks technical or managerial ability, the results are the same: bad bosses sap motivation, kill productivity, and can make you want to run from the job screaming. While leaving is an option, it’s not the only one for coping with a bad boss. Consider these tactics first.
Understand the incompetence
Before you declare your boss useless, check your bias and better understand what you are seeing. “When you’re looking at your boss, the first thing you need to do before you judge, is look at yourself,” says McKee. Many people have blind spots when it comes to their bosses. Ask yourself whether you are jealous of her position in the organization or if you have a natural tendency to resist authority. Your assessment of her incompetence may be unfairly informed by these beliefs.
Consider also whether you have all of the relevant information. “Be cautious about your judgment until you collect the evidence,” says Useem. Remember she may have stressors you don’t see or fully understand. “It’s very common for people to completely miss the pressures their boss is under. Partly because a good manager will buffer you from them,” says McKee. By learning more about your boss and developing empathy for her, you may reevaluate her competence. Remember, even if you conclude that she is indeed incapable, that she is human and don’t demonize her.
Ask others for help
Look to peers or people outside the organization for advice and a place to vent. This doesn’t mean indiscriminate moaning about your boss. “You’re not going to help by joining in on the complaining,” says McKee. Instead find confidants: a trusted colleague, a spouse, a mentor, or a coach. Explain what you are seeing, how it is impacting you and your work, and ask for advice. “This is not to conspire against your boss, but to check your point of view,” says Useem. People outside the situation can give you a fresh perspective or offer helpful suggestions for how to cope.
Make it about you, not your boss
Regardless of your boss’s competence level, you need to work together to get your job done, and presumably advance your career. Managing your boss works best if you frame requests and interactions around your needs. “Telling someone who is not self aware that they aren’t self aware is generally not helpful,” McKee explains. Instead, say something like: “I want to do a good job and achieve my goals, and I need your help to do that.” Be specific about what you want: his input on your work, an introduction to another colleague, his permission to reach out to a client, etc. If he is unable to help, suggest an alternative: perhaps you can ask one of his peers or superiors for input or an introduction. Help him solve the problem.
Rather than giving up on an ineffectual boss, focus on what you can do to fill in the holes. “It’s the calling of leadership to understand what the office or organization needs, and what the customer deserves and to then help them get it. If you recognize [your boss isn’t] fulfilling the mission of the enterprise, more power to you for stepping up,” says Useem. You don’t have to cover up mistakes but do what’s best for the organization. “Leadership goes up just as often as it goes down,” says Useem. You need to do this without harboring resentment. Do it because you know that it’s necessary for the good of the team.
Think twice before ratting anyone out
When you’re working for someone who isn’t getting the job done, it can be tempting to go to your boss’s boss or another leader in the organization. First consider the consequences. “Hierarchy is alive and well. And this person has more power than you do. If you’re going to expose them, you need to understand the political current in your organization,” warns McKee. People at the top of an organization may feel threatened if they see someone trying to take down their peer and may be unwilling to help. Useem agrees. “It’s hazardous to speak up in a very pragmatic sense. If it becomes known that it was you, who’s going to be the first to go?” he says. So if you do decide to formally complain, he advises doing it carefully. Test the waters with someone you trust before going to HR or a superior.
Both McKee and Useem emphasize that there are times when you are obligated to speak up. “In extreme circumstances, if the boss is involved in malfeasance, you have a duty to act,” says Useem. In these cases, you need to go to HR and report what you have observed. Be ready to share evidence.
Take care of yourself
Working for an incompetent boss can be bad for your health. “There is a lot of research on the negative psychological effects,” says McKee. She suggests creating psychological boundaries that protect you from the emotional damage. We have a tendency to point to a bad boss and say, “He is ruining my life.” But, this ignores the fact that you have agency in the situation: you can decide whether to stay or not. “Once you become a victim, you cease to become a leader,” she says. Focus on what makes you happy about your job, not miserable. “We can come to work every day and pay attention to this horrible boss or we can choose to pay attention to the people we are happy to see every day or the work we enjoy. We can choose which emotions we lean into,” says McKee.
Of course, if you aren’t able to do that, you shouldn’t suffer indefinitely. Consider looking for a transfer to a new boss or a new employer.
Principles to Remember
Have empathy for your boss and the pressures he may be under.
Create psychological boundaries around work so that your boss’s incompetence doesn’t negatively impact your health or wellbeing.
Focus on the broader good of the organization and what you can do to contribute.
Try to point out to your boss all the ways that she is incompetent.
Go to your boss’s boss unless you are aware of the potential ramifications.
Stick it out if none of your coping strategies are working — know when you need to leave.
Case Study #1: Focus on what you need
Hilary Parker* had recently moved to Baltimore* and was excited about her new job with a state agency. She was hired by her new boss, Jeremy*, to create a new state-wide alliance focused on environmental issues. Jeremy had been with the agency for years and was well liked across the organization. Three months into the job, however, Hilary noticed that Jeremy was not introducing her to people or setting up the meetings he had promised to. These connections were crucial because Hilary’s project depended on forming relationships. “It felt like he was blocking me a bit,” she says. Over the next few months, things seemed to get worse. He failed to make introductions, took a long time to get back to her on time-sensitive issues, and took things off Hilary’s plate without explanation. “I saw that he was very good at parts of his job but he was terrible at supporting and developing the new program that I was responsible for,” she says.
Hilary was frustrated but still determined to get her job done. So she created a detailed table of the projects she was working on, including information about their status and the contacts and support she needed to make them successful. She then presented the document to Jeremy. This exercise helped her organize her thoughts and ensure she was meeting her boss’s expectations. But she also used it as a way of gaining permission to seek help elsewhere. Specifically, she asked if she could contact Jeremy’s boss Michael*, the chair of the organization, who eventually helped her move some of her projects forward. Michael also sensed Hilary’s frustration and encouraged her to be open about it. “He was very supportive. He gave me the feedback I’d been hoping for from Jeremy,” she says. In the end, with Michael’s support, Hilary decided to leave her position. A few months later, he hired her to work on a consulting project for another agency.
Case Study #2: Protect yourself
Stephanie Fadden* has been in the marketing and communications industry* for more than 16 years. A year ago she took a job at a Fortune 100 company. Michelle*, her new boss, had a similar background but had never managed others before. Early in their working relationship, Stephanie began to see that Michelle was not a clear communicator, could not articulate priorities, and struggled to make decisions. Stephanie was particularly frustrated when Michelle returned her work with line edits that had little to do with the content but were more about stylistic differences. She saw that this boss had little to teach her.
Fortunately for Stephanie, she had a direct route to Michelle’s manager because he had recruited her into the organization. She explained to both the manager and Michelle that she didn’t think this specific job was a good fit and proposed a move to a new position with a different boss. She framed this suggestion about her needs and refrained from complaining about how she was being managed.
The new position didn’t come to fruition, but Stephanie resolved to not let Michelle get her down. Instead she developed coping tactics. “I ask her for exactly what I need. If she is unable to provide it, I provide her with a recommendation,” she says.
She has also shifted her mindset. “I’ve stopped trying to change her,” she says. She tries to look at her with compassion. “It’s so obvious to me that she’s not comfortable in those shoes. She may not know that she’s incompetent but she must know that she’s not hitting it out of the park. She’s trying to do what she thinks a good manager is supposed to do.” Stephanie has also made peace with her own situation. “I’ve accepted and embraced that it’s my choice to stay here. Knowing that this is something in my control and I’m not a victim has helped me tremendously,” she says. There are days that Stephanie wishes she could just leave but she reminds herself that she is choosing to stay. “If I focus on the things in my control, I have a more productive day.”
*Names and some details have been changed