To make sure we’re on the same page about an incompetent boss and not just a way to be nasty about your bad boss, let’s be clear. An incompetent person is someone who is functionally inadequate and/or lacks sufficient knowledge, skills, judgment or strength. If your boss is such, then he or she is incompetent. It happens. In other words, the boss doesn’t know squat about being a manager and may know little to nothing about the area of work you do.
While it can be frustrating to have an incompetent boss, an incompetent boss can seriously damage or derail your career. If they do have a serious lack of knowledge, we know that they can do nothing to grow you as an employee which means any growth will be yours to make happen. Let’s look at the potential damage they can inflict and what you can do to minimize or avoid.
- Bad decisions – Because they don’t know your work, the decisions they make can have an impact they are clueless about. They lack insight and understanding. This means the impact to you can range from cleaning up a mess to putting you in a position that makes you look like you tanked the business. It can make you lose precious time and focus or even get fired.
- Bad direction – We look for our boss to provide direction in the form of “how to” all the way to yearly planning. When the boss is incompetent, their directions can be bad or pointless often leaving important issues untouched.
- Bad support – Our boss can be the single biggest supporter of our career trajectory but if they are clueless about the nature of your work, they may be supporting either the wrong things or person. You can’t expect them to really know or understand if you’re delivering well. They may be a roadblock to your career or simply no help.
When you have an incompetent boss you do have to think through how this person functions in order to use whatever strengths they do have to your advantage or minimally avoid career limiting outcomes. Let’s look at some of the things you can do to prevail with an incompetent boss:
- “Up Level” yourself. In other words, leadership can come from you. If you know your area well there is no reason to not go ahead create and pursue direction that you know will achieve results good for your company. People that do this naturally are followed by their peers as an informal leader. Management, although maybe not your direct boss, will notice your initiative. Of course, you don’t want to do something that undermines the boss, so keep them in the loop.
- Figure out the problem spots. The boss’s incompetence is annoying but it usually impacts you and others in specific ways. Try to observe what those are and make a plan to counteract the problem. I once had an incompetent boss; the biggest issue was that he would sometimes make decisions for the group I managed that were ill considered and negatively impacted the company. I sat down with him and asked if I could either be involved in those decision discussions or to direct the person asking to me directly. It mostly worked. There were times when that direction simply wasn’t possible but people soon learned that they needed to come to me for good decisions. We worked around the problem.
- Teach them. Every time you speak to your boss you have an opportunity to train and teach them about your area. It seems kind of ludicrous to train your boss but the ongoing investment will be worth it once they are savvy enough to know what you’re talking about.
- Look for a mentor. Just because your boss doesn’t bring much in the way of growth doesn’t mean there isn’t someone in your place of business that can be good for your career. Look around for someone at a higher level that is sharp and going places with some type of a good connection to you. Ask them to be your mentor. It will be flattering to them and helpful to you to have someone helping you and in your corner.
- Leave. Sometimes it’s better for your career to leave rather than try to stick it out. If you’ve tried several things and there is no improvement, it may be time for you to pursue something else. This kind of situation can be damaging to both you personally and your career.
While an incompetent boss can be annoying and frustrating, they aren’t the worse kind of boss to have – unless they are nicely packaged with other short comings like being a jerk or tossing you under the train for sport. Many times you can make up for their short comings and also “manage up” as they know innately that they lack many skills and knowledge. Don’t let your frustration get in the way of managing the situation more effectively.