What To Do When Your Boss Can’t Manage

Speaking engagements are such a fun opportunity to gather intelligence on what’s going on in the practice of management. While Bellrock focuses on small business, seminars allow us to access a much broader audience of professionals. A version of this question came up three times in three weeks at various seminars in Vancouver:

“My boss is terrible at delegation. He was the top performer in our group so they made him a manager. He is NOT a good manager. We don’t know what he wants half the time and he is so frustrated with us when we don’t deliver. He takes more work himself and nit picks every little thing we do. We just lost a really good person from the group and I’m sure there will be more. Help!”

This is a classic corporate mistake on promotion: taking the best technician on the team and making them the leader of the team. The theory is that they are so good at the work that they will be great at managing others. However:  

  • Technical skills are not the same as management skills; and
  • Often the best performers are working in a state of “unconscious competence”. They are very good at what they do but they don’t know how or why they are successful so they have difficulty managing and training others.

Since the mistake is common, the impact is far reaching. For every incompetent manager there are 5 – 8 direct reports bearing the brunt of their poor performance. If you’re unlucky enough to be one of those staffers, the future at work can appear bleak.

It’s hard to drive the bus from the back seat but here are five techniques for the brave:

1. Build Trust

Any tough talk must come from a place of trust or the message won’t land. In every interaction with your boss, try to take more off their plate than you add to it. Be dependable. Don’t waste their time. Keep them informed of the good and the bad in their area. As trust builds, so will your ability to discuss all the issues in the department.

2. Raise Consciousness

Tasha Eurich’s research informs us that while 95% of people believe that they’re self-aware, only 10 – 15% are. We can’t see ourselves through other people’s eyes. Among other reasons, people are reluctant to provide negative feedback to the person it’s about. Unfortunately, they’re more than happy to talk about them behind their backs, amplifying the issue to everyone but the one person who needs to know about it. It’s genuinely possible your boss is not aware of the impact they’re having on the situation.

3. Motivate

If you can improve their awareness, the next step is to amplify their desire to change. Try our DIMU process to do both:

  • Details: Ask the manager for the specifics of the situation.
  • Importance: Ask them what they think is most important about it.
  • Measure: Ask them to measure the impact that it’s having (both quantitatively and qualitatively).
  • Urgency: Finally, have them describe the urgency of the situation.

4. Provide Tools

Time for leadership development or management training. Get them a book, a podcast, a class, a coach – anything to give them the tools they need to effectively manage others. They don’t have to be the greatest manager ever; they just need to improve.

5. Reinforce and Encourage

People don’t change overnight but reinforce any evidence that they are changing. Tell them you appreciated that action or noticed them trying something different. They may not be wielding their new tools well at first, but positive reinforcement will encourage them to keep trying. With practice comes progress.

Managing your boss’s performance is very challenging. If they aren’t open to change, there is very little you can do. That said, don’t give up before you’ve tried. Assuming you won’t be harming your career, a cautious conversation to open dialogue may save that manager years of confusion and you years of frustration.

Bellrock is a management consulting and change management firm where remarkable is expected. Our leadership development and management training programs provide remarkable outcomes, one leader at a time. If you found this article valuable, don’t be stingy. Share!

Written By:
Tara Landes

Tara Landes is the Founder and President of Bellrock. She has spent over 20 years consulting and training in small to medium-sized enterprises. A sought-after speaker on a wide range of business topics, Tara has delivered workshops and seminars at conferences and industry associations across Canada. Tara obtained a BA (Honours) in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario (UWO) and earned an MBA from UWO's Richard Ivey School of Business.

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