Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 38;   September 20, 2006: When You Think Your Boss Is Incompetent

When You Think Your Boss Is Incompetent

by

After the boss commits even a few enormous blunders, some of us conclude that he or she is just incompetent. We begin to worry whether our careers are safe, whether the company is safe, or whether to start looking for another job. Beyond worrying, what else can we do?

Let's say, hypothetically, that your latest project has just crashed in flames because your boss forgot to sign off on the extension for the 15 contractors who were staffing it, and they got reassigned. You can get them back in three weeks, but you'll never meet the deadline now. You've just about had it, and you've decided that your boss is totally incompetent.

Seafood stew

Seafood stew. Photo courtesy National Diabetes Education Program of the US National Institues of Health.

Maybe. Maybe not.

All you really know is that your boss's performance has been pretty dismal. Incompetence is just one possible explanation. For instance, your boss might be distracted by problems at home — a sick parent or child, a death, a troubled marriage, substance abuse, or identity theft, to name just a few possibilities.

As subordinates, we rarely have enough data to support any diagnosis of the causes of our bosses' poor performance. Without such data, attributing the cause of the problem to someone's character or lack of talent could be an example of a common mistake called the Fundamental Attribution Error.

A more constructive approach focuses on dealing with the consequences of your boss's performance. Here are some insights and steps you can take that might make your life better despite the situation.

Worry is not a strategy
Some very popular but ineffective tactics include stewing about the situation, griping with co-workers, or carrying the problem home to those you love.
While these choices provide emotional support, they aren't likely to solve the problem. Search for something that can lead to a positive outcome.
Recognize that your organization tolerates substandard performance
Probably you've encountered substandard performance elsewhere in the organization, but it didn't bother you because you were less directly affected.
Since you'll probably bump into substandard performance again, transferring to some other part of the organization is a questionable strategy.
Fish or cut bait
As subordinates, we rarely
have enough data to support
any diagnosis of the causes of
our bosses' poor performance
If you're considering a move, make a decision. Move or don't move, but make a decision.
Sometimes decisions are difficult. Figure out how much time you need. Delaying beyond that is probably a symptom of avoidance rather than evidence of difficulty.
Embrace your choice
If you decide to leave, make leaving a priority. Conduct a disciplined job search, the way you would if you lost your job.
If you decide to stay, commit to staying. Formulate strategies and tactics for safeguarding your career and maintaining your happiness despite your boss's performance.
Plan for Reality
When you estimate effort and duration for task assignments, allow for your boss's performance. Scale back expectations of the capability you can deliver.
You can avoid frustration by anticipating trouble. To some this will feel like giving up, but it's just accepting Reality. Manage the risk.

Your boss's poor performance is your boss's problem. What it does to you is your problem. You'll probably do better if you work your own problem. Go to top Top  Next issue: Assumptions and the Johari Window: Part I  Next Issue

For more on distinguishing which issues are yours and which issues belong to others, see "Stay in Your Own Hula Hoop," Point Lookout for June 27, 2001.

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See also Workplace Politics and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.

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Dogs make great teammates. It's in their constitutions. We can learn a lot from dogs about being good teammates. Available here and by RSS on April 26.
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