I’ve been asked a number of times about how best to handle or work with an ineffective boss. This is a very difficult situation, because we feel stuck – we’re typically unable to ‘go around’ the boss without undermining his/her (and our) credibility, causing a disruption, or appearing to circumvent the chain of command.

Image courtesy of pat138241 at freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of pat138241 at freedigitalphotos.net

So what makes a boss ineffective? It could be a lot of things, but I think these are the major reasons most employees would consider their boss as ineffective:

  • A lack of technical competence or knowledge (unable to help solve problems)
  • A lack of interest or ability to help develop their employees’ careers
  • A lack of credibility with his/her peers and senior leaders
  • A lack of willingness to share credit for successes (or take blame for failures)

Regardless of the specific reason you might consider your boss ineffective, it can be detrimental to your career. You may have heard the saying that “hope is not a strategy”. Some people hope that eventually their own good work will “speak for itself”, and that somehow they’ll get transferred or promoted out of the situation and not really have to deal with it. While this certainly can happen, don’t plan on it. If you sense your boss is not up to the task of really helping you, you need to start planning and taking some action now. Although you will not be able to change your boss’ behavior directly, you can at least have some influence on how you work together.

Here are a few suggestions for handling this difficult situation:

  1. First, consider what part of the problem you are. A good first step is to look inward. Are you blaming your boss for not doing something, when you really haven’t done your homework? Are you perhaps expecting too much from your boss such as wanting him/her to do something that you should be doing or that isn’t realistic at this point? What could you do differently that might lead to a better relationship or outcome?
  2. Create the best partnership possible with your boss. Don’t view your boss as an “enemy”. Rather see this person as a partner with you in meeting your mutual work goals. You may have to humble yourself a little bit, but find out what really drives your boss’ priorities and learn how you can help him/her to be successful. This sounds obvious, and yet many times our conversations with our bosses are focused on what we want/need rather than on what they need or want beyond the immediate task. Find out what drives them and the pressures they are dealing with.
  3. Do everything you can to help make your boss look good. Help your boss appear to be competent, confident and knowledgeable. Sure, an ineffective boss may want to “hog” the credit for a success, but worry less about the credit and more about the results. Your boss’ success usually means good visibility and opportunities for members of the team also.
  4. Be extremely careful with whom (and how) you share your concerns. It’s natural to want to commiserate with others about your situation, but you will hurt yourself if your colleagues think you’re the type of person who talks about others behind their backs. Also, if your boss hears of your concerns indirectly or thinks you’ve been going around them, you will lose a huge amount of credibility and trust. You may be better off keeping your frustrations to yourself for the time being.
  5. Have the difficult conversation. The best bet is to directly approach your boss and ask him/her for specific help where you need it. Give your boss the benefit of the doubt and give her opportunities to work with you to find solutions and help you with your own growth potential. Share your desired goals and what you need from him or her to succeed. Listen carefully to what he/she suggests. Be clear on what you want more or less of. Practice the conversation you want to have and your key points with a trusted colleague—this will help you learn a lot about how to position and share your thoughts before “show time”. Set clear follow-up measures so you can hold each other accountable if progress slips.
  6. Carefully cultivate a broader set of relationships with your boss’ peers and other senior leaders. Most managers are willing to share their network, so ask your boss for his/her recommendations on relationships and with whom it would be good for you to connect. If you’re doing #2 and #3 above, this will be easier. This process will take time, but it will allow others to get to know you and your capabilities better, and open up opportunities for further discussions and learning. Find ways to connect not only on the work itself, but perhaps through less pressure-filled events such as company-organized community projects or office events and socials.

So, what if you’ve tried all the above, and you still feel stuck? At this point you really have two other options:

  • Go around your boss and speak with his/her boss or perhaps Human Resources. I highly suggest you first consider the consequences—what are the chances you look like a “complainer” rather than a positive contributor? What will be the other person’s perspective? What do you expect will be the intended or unintended outcomes of such action?
  • Opt out. We’re all volunteers. If the situation is intolerable, then you may have to find another position internally or outside the company. However, the likelihood is that you’ll run into this situation again at some point. If so, how will you handle it differently?

For additional thoughts on this topic, I would highly suggest John C. Maxwell’s book, The 360 Degree Leader: Developing Your Influence From Anywhere.