Monday, 8 August 2011

The Incompetent Boss - and how to manage him/her

I don't think there's many people out there who haven't at some stage of their career had to deal with a particularly frustrating or difficult manager. I certainly have had some trying experiences in this respect, so it's no surprise that this particular Harvard Business Review management tip caught my eye: Dealing with your incompetent boss. I am always looking for new ways and ideas on how to cope with more 'challenging' people in the workplace in a professional manner - but also in a manner which doesn't end up with you losing the will to live in the process - so this post by Amy Gallo seemed pertinent.

Without a doubt in my eyes, the most common reason I have known for ending up with a 'bad' boss is because firms frequently promote members of staff who have been with the firm for years, they know the people and culture inside out, and they often have excellent technical ability. Indeed Gallo comments that:

"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."

There is no doubt in my mind that just being a technical whizz kid at your job does not a good manager make! In my eyes, the qualities of a good manager in a law library are not just being able to answer every research question proficiently, but also having the ability to coach and mentor team members; having a desire to help others develop and realise their potential; being approachable and ensuring that your staff know they can come to you for guidance and do not feel intimidated or dread asking you a simple question for fear of how you will react. (And in case you're wondering, yes, I am speaking from experience here!)

One other valid point that the writer makes before going on to suggest coping mechansims is not to judge your boss too harshly without considering what factors may be impacting upon them with regard to the powers above them:

""Be cautious about your judgment until you collect the evidence," [...] 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,""

 I do agree with this to an extent; it is not insignificant that in every firm I have worked in, morale in general can be strongly influenced by the management style that filters down from the very top of the hierarchy. I worked in one team whereby I had a very supportive manager, but the manager above her was an extremely difficult person to deal with in every respect, which caused my immediate manager a lot of stress and put her in a difficult situation on more than one occasion. So yes, sometimes we can be very quick to judge without knowing the full story, that is definitely true.

However, there are some managers who, no matter how many ways you look at their situation, are simply not equipped with the requisite key skills to make them a 'good' manager. This is when we need to find ways to improve our situation and make it more bearable - after all, we spend a substantial part of our lives in the office, very often in close proximity to the very person who seems to be causing all the problems!

Gallo makes a number of suggestions; I'm just going to pick out a few that struck a chord with me. Firstly:

"...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 definitely something to bear in mind. It's all too easy to get into the habit of bitching about your boss to a friend or colleague, without actually trying to find ways to improve things. But getting someone else's perspective on the situation can often help you to look at it in a different way, or they might be able to make a suggestion with regard to how they would cope with it, if it were their boss. Don't get me wrong - I know all too well that sometimes you just need to get something off your chest - there are many times when I come home absolutely furious, rant for 20 minutes at my H2B and then it's forgotten (until the next morning, that is...!) But I agree you need to be wary of just bad mouthing your boss to other people at work. I have been party to many a heated, whispered conversation in the kitchen at work, but as I have moved from job to job and climbed the ladder a little higher each time, I have also become more aware that it is simply not appropriate to say too much about a boss to anyone - particularly a team member who in theory is more junior than you are - even if you are close friends, it can be a dangerous line to cross. One thing that always struck me about one of the best bosses I ever had was that although she had a fellow counterpart who was decidedly less popular than she was, she never ever said one single thing against her - although I am sure she must have been tempted at times! 

So the moral is - a vent now and again is human nature, but regular bitching and bad mouthing your superiors is never a good course of action!
Another salient point made by Gallo relates to finding ways of getting your boss to do what you need them to do - in other words, managing your manager:

"Managing your boss works best if you frame requests and interactions around your needs. 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."

In my opinion, this is definitely one of the best ways of coping with an ineffective manager. While it is always great to have a boss who anticipates and understands your needs, and what you require in order to develop professionally, when you aren't lucky enough to have someone like this, the best thing you can do is be firm and assertive, express your needs clearly and concisely, and suggest how they can go about helping you achieve whatever your goal may be. 

Gallo also suggests trying to alleviate the situation by looking at where you could fill some of the gaps. Those of you who read my previous cpd23 post on Mentoring will remember that my informal mentor is a lady who took it upon herself to train me in the basics of legal research when I first started out in law libraries, after she realised that my manager was pretty much leaving me to flounder. While some of you might think, why on earth should I do my boss's job for them, you should look at it as a chance for you to gain some experience in supervising/coaching etc - which will always stand you in good stead should you wish to progress within the organisation hierarchy:

"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. [...] You don't have to cover up mistakes but do what's best for the organization. [...] You need to do this without harboring resentment. Do it because you know that it's necessary for the good of the team"
The final point that struck a chord with me in this excellent article is the question of whether or not it's ever advisable to go above your boss, or go to HR about them:

"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." 

This is something that I feel very strongly about. In my opinion - and bear in mind this is only an opinion, based on my own experiences - your boss's boss rarely wants to hear about the alleged shortcomings of his or her managers - managers who they may have chosen for the job themselves. No matter how good your relationship may be with your boss's boss, you may be very surprised at how the shutters come down and you are met with utter resistance when you suggest that your immediate manager is not performing as they should be. As the writer mentions above:

'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'.

It is likely that the manager about whom you're complaining is regarded by their manager as the lynchpin of the team in terms of technical knowledge (even if they rarely share that knowledge!) - consequently their boss does not want to enter into a situation in which they run the risk of losing that person. As Gallo says: who will be the first to go?

Approaching HR in this kind of situation is also an option, but if you do decide to exercise this right, in my experience you must make sure you have a written log of incidences whereby your manager has mishandled a situation, for example. Without this kind of evidence, it is highly unlikely they will be able to - or indeed want to - intervene. I also think that once again, you need to consider the other implications of speaking to HR about your boss - realistically, it is going to have a big impact on your working relationship with your boss, and in short make your life very uncomfortable. Whilst I certainly don't agree that you should just have to put up with an incompetent boss, my own experiences have led me to believe that if you can find ways of working to improve your situation as Gallo suggests, it may make your working life easier in the long run than if you have to deal with the political fall-out of going over your manager's head.

Having said all that, nobody should have to put up with a situation at work whereby their boss's behaviour is making them physically and/or mentally ill, and if you really don't see a way of managing the situation, then you must speak out - or seriously consider looking for another role!

""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,""
Some might say it's only psychobabble, but to be honest, it's probably a fair point - I certainly wish someone had said that to me in years gone by...!

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