You want to work for a great boss — someone you can respect and learn from. But what if your manager isn’t good at his job? What if you’re more competent or have greater skills? Should you be raising a ruckus or keeping your head down? And how do you get what you need without making your boss look bad?
What the Experts Say
“There are a lot of bad managers out there,” says Annie McKee, founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute and coauthor of Primal Leadership. So it’s not unusual to feel smarter or more qualified than your boss. Still, being in good company doesn’t make the situation any more tenable. Toiling under someone who you feel is incompetent can be demoralizing. But not all hope is lost. Even less-than-great bosses have something to teach, says Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and coauthor of Collective Genius and Being the Boss: “There are very few people in this world that I don’t think I can learn from.” So try not to discount your boss completely. Here’s how to make the most of the often frustrating situation.
Be honest with yourself
Before you declare your boss an incompetent fool, take a close look at what’s really happening. “Some people need to believe they’re better to keep their self-esteem intact, or they may just be more qualified in one area,” McKee says. Ask yourself if you’re genuinely smarter than your manager or if it’s possible that you’re more qualified in some areas but not others. “As people move up it’s natural to get better at leading and managing while losing your technical edge,” says McKee. Be honest with yourself about what skills you have and which your boss lacks. “Being smarter than your boss doesn’t mean you’re going to be more effective,” says Hill. After all, to be good at your job, you don’t just need smarts. “You need experience, strong relationships, social capital, and emotional intelligence,” she says.
If after reflecting on the situation, you conclude that you’re actually smarter or more qualified, think twice before talking to anyone about it. McKee says it’s tempting to plead your case to higher ups or to try to prove that you should have you manager’s job. But this rarely works. “You put yourself at risk if you decide to go directly into that conflict because bosses usually win,” she says. Sure, you may want to vent to one or two trusted colleagues, but be careful. “If your boss senses you are critical or derogatory of her, that relationship may be over,” she says. Many people in this situation make the mistake of telling others how incompetent or unqualified their boss is. “You need to be respectful. If you badmouth your manager, it’s going to reflect badly on you. People notice and worry you’ll talk about them the same way,” says Hill. Nor should you take it out on her. “Don’t be mad at the boss, be mad at the people who didn’t make you the boss,” she says.
Focus on doing a good job
Don’t get caught up in ruminating about who should have what job. You’re better off focusing on your responsibilities, says Hill: “You want to make sure you do your work and people understand what you’ve been able to accomplish.” It might help to focus on the bigger picture instead of your relationship. “You have to find a higher purpose,” says McKee. “Take it outside of the interpersonal fight with your boss.” Hill agrees: “Don’t come in as the smart, young hotshot. Do what’s best for the enterprise.”
Help your boss be better
There’s no reason not to be generous. If your boss is successful, there’s a greater chance you’ll be successful too. “See yourself as a complement to the person. Find a way to compensate for her weaknesses,” says Hill. If he isn’t good at seeing the big picture, ask questions that help him pull back from the details. If she doesn’t understand the technical ins and outs of your product, offer to cover the part of a meeting where the features will be discussed. “Offer up ways that he or she can use you better,” says McKee.
Don’t cover up
“There’s a big difference between delivering on what you’re supposed to do and covering up your boss’s mistakes,” says McKee. If your boss has a pattern of making gaffes, it doesn’t serve you or the company to continuously clean up his mess. “You need to do your job well and you need to deliver on what your boss is asking of you, but if your work is being used to cover up serious deficiencies, you may need to have a conversation with HR,” says McKee.
Find something to respect
It’s easy to focus on the bad but even the worst bosses have redeeming qualities. “How can you find something you respect?” asks McKee. She recommends looking beyond the work environment if necessary. “Is your boss a good mom or a kind husband?” If you truly can’t find something you admire, you may need to find a new job. “If not now, soon,” says McKee. “It’s soul destroying to work for someone you truly don’t respect.” Hill agrees: “If you think you can’t partner with that person, then you need to think about whether you should be at the organization.”
Learn from someone else
If your boss isn’t giving you the coaching you need, “broaden your network,” Hill recommends. Take your learning into your own hands and, McKee suggests, volunteer for projects that will allow you to interact with other senior people in the company. Be explicit about what you want. You might approach another manager and say, “I’d love to learn more about how you do X. Do you mind if we spend a couple hours together over the next few months?” “You can choose to see every opportunity as a way to learn,” McKee says.
Principles to Remember
- Help your boss do her job — see yourself as a complement
- Find something you genuinely respect about him
- Seek out other mentors to help you learn and grow
- Assume that you’re more qualified than your boss— chances are she has some skills you don’t
- Try to take over her job — bosses usually win
- Cover up egregious mistakes or a long-standing pattern of ineptitude
When Patricia Wright* was appointed by a government official in South Africa as an assistant, the job was meant to be administrative. But it was quickly clear to her and her new boss that she had valuable technical skills and experience. “My knowledge and experience on IT-related issues superseded those of my colleagues and my manager,” she says.
At the beginning, she found it irritating to know more than her boss. But he was “very open to learning and being shown how things should be done,” Patricia says. “We grew up in different eras so it did take time and patience to teach him but when he used my ideas, he would thank me and attribute the suggestions to me.” So her frustration soon turned to pride.
Eventually Patricia moved on because she wasn’t passionate about the work. Still she got a lot from her experience. “I learned to have plenty of patience and to be a ‘solution seeker.’ This way of thinking helped me get the job I have today.”
Case study #2: Make your boss look good
Soon after Abike Eze* became a marketing and business development manager at a financial services company based in Lagos, Nigeria, he got a new boss — we’ll call her Rose.* Rose moved to marketing from HR and had no background in the function. Abike found himself having to cover a lot of her work. “Even though she heads the marketing unit, I am responsible for coming up with the strategy to grow the business and for cutting costs,” he says.
He admits that it’s frustrating at times, especially when she makes decisions that go against what he thinks is best based on his expertise. Still, he does whatever he can to support her and make her look good. “Humility is the way to go,” he says. “I offer to help when I sense she may be struggling with a task or an idea.” And when he presents an idea to more senior executives, he often gives Rose the credit or at least says that they worked on it together. She is aware of what Abike does for her and returns the favor, saying good things about him to their boss.
This collaborative —rather than combative — approach has worked for Abike. He is well regarded by his boss’s boss and he has critical responsibilities in the company, even if he doesn’t hold the “head of marketing” title. Besides he doesn’t see another good option. “If you have friction with your manager, and the company values him more than you, you may risk being let go,” he explains. “She’s been with the company for over a decade and I have only been here for eight months. Besides she is my boss after all,” he says.
*not their real names