“Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it,” wrote Laurence J. Peter in The Peter Principle, his 1968 satire in which everyone in an organization is promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. Eventually every position in the company contains someone who can’t do the job.
Unfortunately, Peter’s premonition seems to be as true today as it was 50 years ago. Despite spending $15 billion annually on managerial and leadership development, 64% of employees say that their manager doesn’t provide adequate support and 75% say that “their boss is the most stressful part of their workday.”
As companies continue to promote people based on an absence of weaknesses, rather than the presence of strengths, managerial ineffectiveness becomes the unfortunate norm. Yet employees don’t need to adopt a victim mindset. They have options. In many cases, even small steps can make a significant impact towards turning around a struggling manager.
It just depends on what level of incompetence you’re dealing with. And whether it’s worth your time to do something about it.
1. They can’t make decisions to save their life.
It’s easy to find a reason to not make a decision. You can always wait for more information, more details, and see how the situation develops. But good leaders always display a bias for action. They know that chronic indecision not only wastes opportunities, but it puts a heavy drain on morale.
You can always correct a wrong decision once results begin to roll in. Non-decisions teach us nothing. They lead to stagnation, which in a fast-changing world, often means trouble. As a wise fortune cookie once said, “Many a false step was made by standing still.”
If your boss struggles with decision-making, help limit the risk. Show her the potential feedback mechanisms that will validate whether the decision’s effective. When you can monitor the results and course correct as needed, it’s much easier to ease the anxiety around decision-making. And remind them that even the best decisions become obsolete sooner or later. As Drucker wrote,
“One always has to expect the assumptions to become obsolete sooner or later. Reality never stands still very long.”
2. They refuse to take the blame for their failures.
Whenever someone makes a mistake, most people already know it. The only question is whether that person will admit it, and begin earning back everyone’s trust, or try to deny any responsibility, and sink himself further into the hole.
We’re human. And as humans, we’re all going to make mistakes. But when managers refuse to take responsibility for their own issues, they signal that they’re unwilling to improve. People learn through an iterative process. If they’re unwilling to recognize their role in a problem, there’s no point in trying to learn from it.
Recognize that these behaviors always catch up to people. Instead of trying to force accountability on your boss, model this behavior and encourage those around you to embrace these opportunities for growth. Later, when your boss is still trying to deflect blame, you’ll be the one that’s driving improvement across the team. And there are few people more indispensable than those who elevate everyone around them.
3. They try to manage everything through rules.
A cardinal rule of management is that you can’t use process to solve people problems. Yet many bosses try to use an ever-expanding rulebook to take all the risk out of managing. Instead of addressing the 5% of employees that are the problem, they make rules that punish the other 95% who weren’t abusing their freedoms.
Certain rules and policies are necessary. But as the old legal proverb goes, “a country of many laws is a country of incompetent lawyers.” Good managers solve generic problems through rules and policies, but recognize that a company’s ability to respond to changing circumstances require decision-making latitude.
If you find your manager implementing rules that are slowing down your team, challenge them. Ask whether they help you deliver on the mission. If not, offer to pilot a scaled back process and see how it goes. It’s much easier to get someone to agree to a temporary trial than a permanent change.
4. They don’t share information.
Weak managers try to hoard information, believing it gives them an advantage over others. They’ll say that they don’t want to distract or upset people. Or they’ll claim that it’s sensitive information and not fit for a broader distribution.
The truth is that very little business information needs to remain secret and this threshold is fairly obvious. When it comes to strategies, priorities, and plans, more informed employees are better able to collaborate across the organization. Founder and CEO of Box, Aaron Levin said, “At any given time, some significant percentage of people are working on the wrong things. The challenge is knowing which ones.” The ability to recognize and flag these misalignments directly relates to the amount of information that management is willing to share.
If your manager is an information bottleneck, keep asking questions. Don’t settle for being kept in the dark. Explain that you need to understand the higher-level company strategies to make sure your own work aligns to those priorities.
5. They don’t give credit where it’s due.
Studies repeatedly show that one of the worst things a boss can do is take credit for someone else’s work. It’s a direct violation of employee trust and it shows a complete lack of integrity on the manager.
If you feel as though your boss doesn’t recognize your work, resist the impulse to become a shameless self-promoter. No one likes that person. And as rewarding as it might be in the moment, try not to publicly call out your boss for gaslighting.
Instead, focus on demonstrating the change that you want to see. Recognize the work of others in your group and take steps to promote their successes. And insist on a clear division of responsibilities — when roles are more clearly defined, it’s much easier to associate credit where it truly belongs.
6. They do your job instead of their own.
Micromanagement is mismanagement. There’s no excuse for hiring smart, driven people and then telling them exactly how to do their jobs. Not only is it a waste of resources, it limits employee development and kills morale.
When managers are overwhelmed with their own responsibilities, they tend to fall into the role of micromanager. They know how to do the daily work in their group — it’s probably why they were promoted in the first place. Reverting to that level gives them a sense of accomplishment when they’re struggling to feel valued in a new role.
In these situations, it’s important to gently reinforce your manager’s interest while emphasizing your ownership of the job. Let them know that you appreciate their advice. But be firm on what you think is the best path forward and explain your reasoning. Build a level of comfort through your decision-making rationale and it’ll be easier to get your manager to back off and let you do your job.
7. They only focus on the negative.
“The role of leaders in every organization,” Aubrey Daniels wrote, “is not to find fault or place blame, but to analyze why people are behaving as they are, and modify the consequences to promote the behavior they need.” People rarely do what they’re told. If they did, we would only eat healthy foods, never lose our temper, and exercise regularly. In reality, behaviors are driven not by instructions, but the consequences that follow.
When managers focus on the negative, they’re able to address problem behaviors. But the opposite of bad isn’t good — it’s just not bad. If they limit their focus to correcting poor behaviors, they eventually have a team of mediocre performers who don’t make mistakes, yet never perform at an elite level.
If your manager struggles to identify positive results, take the lead to drive this behavior. Recognize the high quality work of others in your group and promote those wins across the team. Peers and coworkers can often give the most effective reinforcement because they see the daily behaviors and are in a better position to provide immediate feedback. And once your manager sees you taking the lead in this area, it’ll be easier for them to join in and build on what you started.
8. They refuse to acknowledge trade-offs.
“The best thing I did as a manager at PayPal,” wrote Peter Thiel, “was to make every person in the company responsible for doing just one thing. Every employee’s one thing was unique, and everyone knew I would evaluate him only on that one thing.” Good leaders recognize that in order to be successful in one key area, they’ll need to sacrifice focus in others.
Every organization has limited time and resources. And when companies dilute these resources across a wide range of priorities, they rarely succeed in any of them. As the first recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, Herbert Bacardi Swope once said, “I can’t give you a surefire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time.”
When managers refuse to recognize priorities and trade-offs, the effect on morale is clear and immediate. People quickly become disengaged when they find themselves in a double bind that they can’t win.
If your manager refuses to lead in this area, lay out your own priorities and decide where you’ll make the biggest impact. Where can you make a big enough contribution that no one will care about the trade-off? As Greg McKeown wrote in Essentialism,
“Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, ‘What do I have to give up?’ they ask, ‘What do I want to go big on?’”
9. They don’t listen.
Effective communication is synonymous with good management. When managers don’t clearly communicate their expectations, they’re setting people up for failure. And while few managers struggle to talk, many fail to listen.
There’s often a clear disconnect between what managers say and what employees hear. Managers assume that everyone knows their intentions, but in reality, no one can see inside of their head. Unless they ask follow-up questions and listen for understanding, these disconnects tend to grow over time.
Most managers don’t intentionally close their minds to people; they just operate on the bad assumption that everyone understands them. Ask questions to show them when things are unclear. And test different methods to find mediums where they’re most receptive. Many managers struggle to hear feedback in public forums, but are much more open-minded during one-on-one meetings.
10. They’re out of touch with the daily work.
“Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them,” wrote John C. Maxwell. Many managers struggle with the appropriate level of involvement, trying to give employees freedom and avoid the micro-manager stigma. Yet when they back off too far, they lose perspective on the work and become ineffective in managing the group.
As employees begin to resent their manager’s lack of involvement, they begin involving him less. And as they cut him out of the loop, the manager’s involvement dropped further. Leading to more resentment and even less involvement.
A manager’s effectiveness is based on the information she receives from her employees. If you find yourself in this situation, you can let it devolve into a doom loop or choose to break the cycle. Let your boss know that while you appreciate the trust and freedom, you’d also like the benefit of her expertise in certain areas. Then develop a plan to keep her regularly engaged and highlight areas where you’d appreciate her involvement.
11. They’re verbally abusive.
Every leader’s goal should always be to lift their people up, not put them down. Bosses that resort to making people feel worse by berating or belittling them are nothing more than bullies. They try to compensate for their own poor self-image by bringing people down.
Toxic workplaces and office bullies persist because no one confronts them. Don’t make this mistake. Bring it up to your HR department and make sure they take action. There’s simply no excuse for allowing this behavior to continue.
Managing Your Incompetent Manager
Your boss is human. And like all humans, she’ll have strengths as well as weaknesses. Whether the strengths make up for the weaknesses, is a decision we all need to make.
While it can be frustrating to deal with a manager’s weaknesses, there are benefits to it as well. By understanding your boss’s limitations, you’re better able to demonstrate your strengths and make yourself an asset to the organization. As you take on more of these challenges, you expand your own managerial skill set and increase exposure within the company and beyond.
At the end of the day, it all comes back to Naval Ravikant’s advice on our three options — change it, accept it, or leave it:
“In any situation in life, you only have three options. You always have three options. You can change it, you can accept it, or you can leave it. What is not a good option is to sit around wishing you would change it but not changing it, wishing you would leave it but not leaving it, and not accepting it. It’s that struggle, that aversion, that is responsible for most of our misery.”
There’s no universal solution. The important thing is to make a choice and move forward. Because it’s often the choices we don’t make that we regret the most.