How to manage a horrible boss: the incompetent leader

09 December 2015 -


An incompetent manager not only makes their job harder, but it makes the jobs of those they manage harder too. Find out how best to handle the situation

Jermaine Haughton

From the hapless David Brent in the Office to the scatter-brain J. Peterman from American comedy Seinfeld, managerial incompetence has arguably become such a cultural norm that we make TV programmes, produce movies and write books poking fun at it.

Whether operating in middle management or the C-Suite, incompetent managers can be categorised as individuals who are functionally inadequate or have an insufficient amount of knowledge, skills and judgment to undertaken the motivating, directing and handling of their team.

In some instances, such managers are actually very good employees who excelled with their technical skills, and subsequently earned a promotion to a management position, but simply have not mastered the competent leadership, interpersonal and communication skills needed to guide their team safely through projects and meet targets. More than just supervising workers, effective management requires leaders to take responsibility for ensuring that an individual succeeds, and that the team, department or business unit achieves expected results.

An unwillingness to take strong actions is a common feature among incompetent managers. While productive managers are decisive, out-of-their-depth managers frequently shy away from taking a lead as they are often afraid to make mistakes. This inaction habitually leads to a number of undesirable outcomes in the workplace, including uproar from confused team members, and missing out on valuable and profitable opportunities for the business.

Another typical personality type found among incompetent managers is a reticence against being honest to themselves and colleagues when problems arise, afraid it may cause some hurt. Some bosses may hide important details about clients, business operations and projects from staff to prevent distractions and confusions from their work, despite the information having a crucial part to play in the team’s performance.

Likewise, over-sensitive managers identify problems and mistakes by individual workers but show an inability to address it directly, allowing the issue to linger and obstructing others.

Each year there a number of high-profile cases of incompetent management decisions severely denting the bottom line of large companies. Former Blackberry chief executive Thorsten Heins was roundly criticised by tech commentators for exacerbating the mobile phone makers decline through a serious of incompetent management moves. In addition to struggling to communicate well to the media, Heins found himself in deep water trying to revive the company’s fortunes in the face from fierce competition from Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy. Failing to accelerate the development of BlackBerry’s own smartphone, the Z10 and Q10 and, botching the expansion of the BBM software, Heins was eventually fired in November 2013, with its stock slumping by almost 60% during his tenure.

Research from CMI, the Chartered Association of Business Schools and business network The Supper Club found bad management and incompetence are to blame for the majority of new business failures. Some 44% of the companies founded in the UK in 2011 had failed by 2014, and incompetence or poor business management was to blame in 56% of cases.

As management news columnist Sirajuddin Aziz eloquently summarised: “What does the incompetent boss fear the most? The fear of losing control. This single facet in any personality is the most potent impediment in the path of progress and creativity. To such, the fear of unknown is a threat to their position. The incompetent manager is a victim to false modesty and is plagued by very low self-esteem that he continually masks through the creation of a large cesspool of self-deception.”

From the perspective of an ambitious and driven employee, incompetent management can seem like the ultimate slap in the face. At its least, your boss’ lack of knowledge, direction and expertise could leave you consistently cleaning up messy situations, but at its worse, workers are likely to experience little growth in their skillset and expertise – threatening to derail their own career prospects.

While such an environment requires stoic patience and a positive attitude, here are three steps employees should take to address their boss’ management limitations.

Show initiative: Without undermining your direct manager, take a lead on projects and go ahead creating and pursuing a direction you know will achieve results good for your company.

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. If your boss is a terrible time-keeper, set up a schedule of events for each day and remind him/her frequently of upcoming meetings and responsibilities.

Teach an old dog new tricks: Try and gain greater interaction with managers during projects, sharing your knowledge and ideas, and introducing them to new tools and explaining how they may be of benefit (i.e. saving time or more efficient). By doing so in a less formal, yet productive manner, you can end up implicitly training your boss in skills he/she is lacking.

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