How to deal with an incompetent boss

Being Incompetent – what does it mean?

Identifying incompetence is not always a clear-cut process as this characteristic can present itself in different forms. Incompetence must not be confused with “bad leadership”. The two are close cousins but dissimilar in their nature. For example, a manager can be competent technically but bad at leadership, which can render them ineffective. This article will focus on managers who are incompetent. Simply put, these are managers that have consistently failed to perform satisfactorily in their roles.

Characteristics of incompetence include; inadequate knowledge, experience and skills to fulfil the managerial requirements; inability to apply suitable judgment to make sound decisions, lack of insight and understanding, ineffective task management and failure to deliver on goals.

The following are additional indicators of incompetence in a line manager;

  • Absent managers. Incompetence is sometimes in the form of completely withdrawn managers who never make time for their subordinates. The result of the manager’s detachment and lack of availability to team members often leads to; lack of direction on key tasks, insufficient feedback on progress and poor clarity around expectations. This type of incompetence is an extreme form of “laissezfais” management, resulting in free-range, “leaderless” and self-ruling employees.
  • Lack of decision-making capabilities. A high proportion of decisions made by incompetent managers have a negative impact on output. Their deficiency in this area is often evident in their constant indecisiveness, making decisions too late or not at all and poorly planned or miscalculated decisions.
  • Seldom honours deadlines or commitments. Most obligations made by incompetent managers do not materialise and there is sporadic adherence to deadlines. They also do not institute consequences for lack of delivery. As such, it is difficult for their team to ever see anything come to completion.
  • Is a people pleaser: Some managers incompetence emanates from their desire to be liked by their subordinates. They are extremely agreeable on everything and prioritise being a crowd-pleaser and a “fun buddy” over the achieving of departmental goals.
  • Lacks direction: Another sign of incompetence is the inability to provide clear direction and in cases where the direction is given, it is often not well considered, does not take into consideration key elements and is detrimental in its impact.

Tips to deal with an incompetent manager.

The natural inclination when it comes to incompetent managers is the desire to report them. This approach can be feasible, especially in extreme and undeniable cases of incompetence. If you are going to report your boss, it is important to understand the political current in the company and how well your boss manages impressions, especially to “higher up’s”. Complaining to the people who promoted the incompetent boss may not always yield results. The said people may be reluctant to consider that they made a mistake and may be motivated to continue justifying their appointment. It is also common for peers and higher up’s to want to protect “one of their own”. In this regard, a more feasible option may be to find ways to work around the incompetent boss and ensure his/her presence does not impact your own career growth.

Document everything.

If you have to eventually illustrate your manager’s incompetence, especially in a situation where your own work comes under question due to the boss’s incompetence, document all interactions and key events in a log or through emails. If for example, your boss verbally committed to sending you a document that you need in order to complete a task, follow it up with an email. If the deadline passes, note in the email that you have not received the information you need in time to complete the task. Keep track of all the times you are not able to deliver on your work due to an action (or lack thereof) by your boss.

Step-up, become the informal leader.

Bad management can stagnate your career growth, therefore stepping up can have a positive effect on your own development. Identify your boss’s main weaknesses and tactfully intervene to fill those gaps. For example, if there is no direction on your team project, offer to draw up a project plan and volunteer to provide weekly updates and track deliverables. Run this by your boss first as it’s important to not appear as if you’re trying to subvert their authority. The idea is to give the boss the illusion of control and even graciously give them credit for things everyone knows they didn’t do. The strategy is to disassociate yourself from your bosses incompetence and associate your name with good work to avoid any negative impact on your overall reputation and ability to progress.

Find sponsors or mentors within the company.

Another strategy to fill the managerial or leadership vacuum you may be experiencing as a result of your incompetent boss is to find a mentor or sponsor (an influential person who can support, advocate and vouch for you) within the company. Aligning yourself with another leader in the company through requesting their mentorship, advice and guidance can help you to fill the management gaps. In addition, you also position yourself to get noticed by other senior leaders and potentially get support.

If you find yourself working under an incompetent manager, trying to report them may not always yield the results you want. As such, it is important to device ways to work around them for your own benefit. Running away does not also guarantee that you will get a great manager in the next situation, that is why equipping yourself is a skill you can use even in future similar scenarios.

Listen to my Capricorn FM Interview discussing this topic.