How to Better Manage Your Poor Manager

Six Ways to Take Agency and Stop Being a Victim

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

“Management,” described Clayton Christensen, “is the opportunity to help people become better people. Practiced that way, it’s a magnificent profession.” And while this should be the goal of all management, many employees don’t consider it a positive aspect of their jobs, instead identifying with Peter Drucker’s thoughts that “most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.”

Indeed, despite spending billions of dollars annually on managerial and leadership development, managers still struggle to be a positive influence — with 64% of employees saying that their managers don’t provide adequate support and 75% of Americans saying that “their boss is the most stressful part of their workday.”

And yet most managers are not only trying their best to be effective — they also believe they’re doing a good job.

If you walked around and polled every manager in your company, the vast majority will consider their performance to be above average. How then, do we seem to be surrounded with management incompetence?

“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” — Laurence J. Peter, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong

In 1968, Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull developed The Peter Principle, a satire in which everyone in an organization continues to be promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. Eventually — given enough time and promotions — every position in a company contains someone who can’t do the job.

Another variant suggests that people aren’t necessarily promoted to their level of incompetence, but to a level that overwhelms their abilities and creates enough anxiety that they lose all ambition and dreams of further success. Thus changing people from energetic go-getters to the jaded curmudgeons full of bad advice from the “good-old-days.”

I’m sure you know both types. But I also think these groups generally fall in the minority. The bigger problem is simply that managers are human. And as humans, they’re equipped with both strengths and weaknesses.

Yes, a certain percentage of managers that believe themselves to be above average are falling prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Darwin was spot on when he said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

But the majority believes they’re doing a good job because they’re measuring their performance against different factors. Different people have different views on what makes a good manager — and for managers, this often aligns with their strengths and the reasons they were promoted in the first place.

A manager who excels in technical reviews will focus her behaviors around that strength. Consequently, she’ll bias her means of measuring success towards this trait. The fact that she’s a poor communicator won’t factor as highly into her consideration for managing successfully.

Managers end up in a cycle of doubling down on their specialties while ignoring the areas of their struggles. The issue isn’t that the majority of managers are incompetent and overwhelmed (although some certainly are), it’s that they’re good enough at a couple things that their failures and struggles are overlooked.

And while this issue is easier to handle than outright incompetence, it’s still a concern for the affected employees. After all, they continue to be saddled with managers that are blind to their shortcomings.

So everyone needs to choose — do you let your manager’s weaknesses limit your own career? Or do you do something about 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.” — Neil Ravikant, Tools of Titans

As angel investor and founder Neil Ravikant laid out, every situation has three options. Change it, accept it, or leave it.

Having a struggling manager is no different. We can choose to change it, accept it, or leave it.

Most people’s actions align with the “accept it” option. They wait around and hope that the company will eventually step in to address the issue for them. All the while complaining to whoever’s willing to listen. And nothing ever changes.

But there’s many ways employees can take greater agency in their career and influence a poor managerial situation. Even small actions can have a drastic improvement

For those looking to take some agency over the situation, even small actions can have a drastic improvement. It just depends on which struggling manager you find yourself stuck with.

“Many a false step was made by standing still.” — Fortune Cookie (via The 4-Hour Workweek)

Poor decisions can usually be corrected, but indecisiveness is often fatal. Whether the boss is a perfectionist who’s always waiting for that perfect option or someone who simply struggles with the responsibility of choosing a path, it’s an especially hindering situation for their employees.

And one that we can’t allow to continue and simultaneously advance our careers.

The first step is to recognize the reasons behind your manager’s hesitation. And nine times out of ten, it comes down to being uncomfortable with the perceived risk.

So our solution just comes down to reducing the potential risk in making a decision. And this usually stems from a level of knowledge of the problem and the ability

People become more comfortable with risk when they have more knowledge of the problem and the potential solutions. Instead of just presenting solutions to your manager, try involving her in the process to frame the problem and generate ideas. That way, she’ll see the full process and better recognize the alternatives.

Additionally, recognize that of all the decisions we make, many will turn out to be wrong. Even high quality decisions eventually become obsolete.

So instead of treating decision-making as a one-time milestone, make it just one step in the overall process. Show your boss that you’ve planned for feedback mechanisms into the aftermath and can validate the decision’s effectiveness. When you can monitor the results and change course if needed, the risk (and stress) of decision-making goes way down. As Peter Drucker wrote,

“One always has to expect the assumptions to become obsolete sooner or later. Reality never stands still very long.”

“Oh, yes. The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.” — Rafiki, The Lion King

“It wasn’t my fault, the supplier dropped the ball.”

“Don’t look at me, I wasn’t set up for success.”

“Sometimes things just go wrong. And there’s nothing we can do about it.”

We all know people who never take any blame. No matter what happens, their failures are always due to some external event. They’d be the next Steve Jobs if the universe wasn’t committed to keeping them down.

One of my friends insists that he’s the world’s greatest poker player, yet he can never win because he always gets bad cards. Instead of working on improving his game, he just complains about his bad luck. You can guess how well this strategy is working out for him.

Learning requires an iterative process. If we’re constantly downplaying our own role when we fail, we’re ignoring the feedback mechanism that helps us grow and develop.

When a manager refuses to recognize the group’s responsibility in these struggles, he hinders the entire group’s ability to learn. As Bradley Staats wrote,

“When you assign responsibility for a failure to outside events, you negatively impact your motivation to try to learn. If you were simply unlucky, why even try to learn from it?”

It’s important to note that we’re all prone to overly weight components such as luck or task difficulty in our own failures while underweighting them in the struggles of others. We are, by default, subjective human beings. And for this reason, it becomes everyone’s responsibility to provide honest feedback and hold people accountable to their performance.

This isn’t solely a managerial responsibility but a requirement of everyone who makes up the team. Encourage everyone to be completely honest with themselves following a crisis and open yourself to their feedback as well. Then, a year later when your boss is still complaining about his ill fortune, you’ll be the one that’s driving improvement. And there’s few people more critical than those who push people to constantly improve.

“Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.” — John C. Maxwell

I once had a manager who was completely uninvolved in the daily operations of our engineering group. In some ways this was a positive — we had the freedom to choose our own paths and weren’t bothered with a lot of overhead. But it also brought drawbacks, he was so disengaged that he couldn’t help out when needed. Without a basic understanding of our work, he was largely ineffective in managing the group.

In retrospect, I mismanaged this situation from the start. I grumbled about his lack of involvement. I blamed it on a combination of disinterest and lack of ability. And as I spitefully cut him further out of the loop, his level of involvement continued to decline.

He was ineffective based on a lack of involvement. I resented it and involved him less. Which caused him to know even less and become more ineffective. Which I further resented. And so the vicious circle continued.

In actuality, this manager was trying to give me more freedom and control. He was overwhelmed with other responsibilities and figured his time was better spent in other areas.

Instead of responding with the petulance of a toddler, I should have put myself in his shoes. I would have seen the benefits of having the increased freedom and figured out a way to give him the information he needed to be more effective.

If you have a manager who’s too hand-off, try looking at things from her point of view. She’s trusting you to manage your own work and giving you the opportunity to take more initiative. She’s also trusting that you’ll keep her informed and engaged as needed.

Let her know that you appreciate the trust that she’s demonstrated in you, but that you’d also like the benefit of her expertise in certain areas. Then outline a plan to keep her regularly engaged and can highlight areas where you’d appreciate her thoughts.

Ultimately, a manager’s effectiveness will be dependent on the information they receive from their employees. You can choose to help this situation or initiate your own vicious circle.

“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 don’t frequently 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 or antecedents, but the consequences that follow.

So when management offers initial instructions without follow-up feedback, it’s unlikely to be effective in driving the right behaviors throughout the organization. Worse, it sends a message to people that their efforts are unnoticed.

Despite endless advice on the importance of giving feedback in the workplace, many managers still fall short of this expectation — myself included. Most recognize the importance, yet don’t give it the priority it needs amidst all of the other issues.

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.

Instead, focus on demonstrating the change that you want to see. Recognize the work of others in your group and offer feedback to your peers. 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 if you’re concerned that your manager doesn’t recognize your own work, take more accountability for how your performance is viewed — send updates on progress, discuss setbacks and lessons learned, and regularly get feedback from stakeholders and pass it along to your boss. Don’t pester her with questions on how you’re doing, but show her what you’re working on and tell her how you think you’re doing. That opens the door for her to agree or offer any additional perspectives.

“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.”

Peter Thiel recognized that for people to excel, they need to have clear focus and defined priorities. Yet managers routinely put their employees in double binds of conflicting priorities.

How frequently do we hear companies promising to deliver the highest technical quality while also being the lowest cost option?

Or who hasn’t been “empowered” to be innovative and take risks in the same conversation where they’re told to follow the procedure and make sure not to jeopardize this quarter’s numbers?

The result on employees isn’t surprising. People quickly become frustrated and disengaged to be put in a situation that they can’t win.

A situation that’s often made worse when management refuses to recognize the bind they’ve created — telling people that “of course you’re expected to do it all. That’s just the way it is here.”

Yet we can’t do it all. A lesson that most of us have learned — and are still learning — the hard way. Trying only dilutes our focus on the true priorities and sacrifices our opportunity to make a real difference.

In these situations, it’s up to each of us to recognize the area that we’ll deliver the most value. While management may be unwilling to recognize the trade-offs, taking the time to lay out your own priorities and critical responsibilities is a necessary part of making a positive impact. As Greg McKeown wrote in his book on the disciplined pursuit of less,

“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?’”

Where can you make a big enough impact that no one will care about the trade-off? What values and priorities are you unwilling to compromise on? Because as Ray Dalio outlined in Principles,

“In order to be great, one can’t compromise the uncompromisable.”

“I am, as I’ve said, merely competent. But in an age of incompetence, that makes me extraordinary.” — Billy Joel

If every employee who claimed to have an incompetent boss was correct, it wouldn’t speak well of our human species. With some of the stories that you hear, it’s a wonder that so many people are able to find their way into an office in the morning.

Make no mistake, there’s plenty of incompetent people out there. Flat earthers, anti-vaccers, and climate change deniers seem to be actually growing in numbers despite the overwhelming evidence disputing their theories.

But the majority of managers deemed “incompetent” are typically those who’ve just lost their technical edge. As management’s focus turns away from the hands-on technical work, it’s natural that their depth moves into different areas.

Which is a much easier problem than just general incompetence. And one that presents an opportunity for our own development.

Often the best way to further your own knowledge on a subject is to teach it to someone else. Similar to Frank Shamrock’s plus, minus, equal training mentality, the path to mastery includes teaching someone else the skills you’re looking to perfect.

When we teach others, we need to further our own understanding of a topic and be able to relate it to someone with a different background and perspectives. In the words of Seneca, “Docendo discimus,” (“By teaching we are learning”).

If your boss has lost his technical edge, see it as an opportunity to teach. Not only will it increase your own depth on a topic, but it will build trust in your relationship as well. And if there are responsibilities that his technical knowledge can’t support, offer to step in and help with those areas — it’ll increase your own responsibility and provide better overall support for your team.

“The effective executive accepts that the boss is human (something that intelligent young subordinates often find hard). Because the superior is human, he has his strengths; but he also has limitations. To build on his strengths, that is, to enable him to do what he can do, will make him effective — and will make the subordinate effective. To try to build on his weaknesses will be as frustrating and as stultifying as to try to build on the weaknesses of a subordinate. The effective executive, therefore, asks: ‘What can my boss do really well?’ ‘What has he done really well?’ ‘What does he need to know to use his strength?’ ‘What does he need to get from me to perform?’”- Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive

It would be wonderful if all of our managers were effective and successful in every area. But as long as we continue to promote human beings, we’ll gain the benefits of their strengths as well as the liabilities of their limitations.

The choice then, is whether you want to become a victim of a struggling manager or take agency and positively influence the situation. Accept it, change it, or leave it?

Many of these issues are manageable. We just need to make a decision and commit to it. As Seneca put it, “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.”

Thanks, as always, for reading. Feel free to share your own bad manager stories and any other advice you have. I’d love to hear from you. And if you found this helpful, I’d appreciate if you could help me share with more people. Cheers!

I might be a top writer. It depends on the week.

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