Is your boss incompetent?  Do you get nervous every time he or she gets their hands in the decision-making process?  Now that’s not to say he or she is a bad person.  Many times when we have a boss we deem “incompetent,” it doesn’t mean we dislike him or her.  We just don’t trust their ability to make the “right” decision given their role and responsibilities.  Think of Michael Scott from the T.V. show “The Office.”  A nice enough guy, but not someone we would trust to place our order at a drive thru let alone decisions that impact our careers.  Here are some of the most common reasons we deem a boss incompetent:

They don’t “get” what we do around here – This is more common with bosses that come from the “outside.”  It is important that we acknowledge that a boss doesn’t necessarily need to know how to do your job better than you.  A boss’ job is to manage the people and resources under his or her care.  However, when a boss walks into a culture, environment or industry that they just don’t get, bad things can happen.  Particularly, when they don’t acknowledge the differences and they try to do things the way they have always done it.  Scary.

– What exactly do they “do” all day long? – Ever wonder what your boss actually does all day long?  I remember working with an organization that shared that opinion of their unit President.  All day he was holed up in his office staring intently at his computer screen, but rarely interacting with anyone outside of his four walls.  Turns out he was busy day trading online… every day, all day.  If it’s not clear what your boss is doing, you’ll probably assume the worst.  Hopefully you aren’t right.

The decisions they make are downright scary – Does your boss make very poor decisions – regarding people, priorities, well… everything?  Do you ever feel like the office actually runs “better” when the boss is not around?  Do you find yourself trying to address issues without your boss knowing so it can be handled the “right way?”  Bob qualified as one such boss.  He was running an organization that traditionally served a geographic region in the U.S.   Bob decided, with no clear reason (or supporting evidence) that the organization needed to expand beyond its small region – to begin serving an obscure country in the Middle East.  Years, countless trips and resources later, the organization is still scratching its head at that decision… and at Bob.

So what do you do?  Your boss is incompetent and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.  Here are two steps you can take:

Step 1: Understand your boss – the first step is to understand what your boss wants to do with his or her time, what he or she values at work and what are his or her strengths.  This is important so you can begin to get a better understanding of how he or she thinks and acts.  Great questions to ask your boss are:

“What do you think is the best use of your time?”
“What do you think we need to change around here?”
“What would you list as your greatest strengths?”
“Where do you see us as a group going?”

Note: Notice I didn’t ask detail-related questions on how they want to interact with the day to day business (Ex: “what decisions do you want to be a part of?”).  When you ask detail-related questions, you run the risk that they say they want involvement in everything.  Not want you want to hear so don’t ask.

Step 2: Manage your boss – the next step is to help to manage your boss so that he or she can spend time on what they want to be doing and you can be getting done what needs to get done.  Connect what you see as the needs of the group with what the boss wants to do.  For example, maybe it’s o.k. that they stay out of the office on Fridays to meet with customers (or do whatever it is they do).  Then you can actually get some of the work done that needs to get done.  Here’s the takeaway: you can’t remove the “incompetence” from your boss but what you can do is remove the unpredictable nature of your boss and contain their actions and impact.

Step 3: Be honest with yourself – Be honest with yourself about your labeling of your boss.  Make sure that you aren’t labeling your boss “incompetent” simply because you wouldn’t do something the way they did… or more importantly, because you think you should be the one with their job.  That could be a dangerous step in the wrong direction… for you (see last month’s dysfunction “I thought I was a rock star until they let me go”)!

Incompetent bosses break trust, not because they are bad people, but because they are bad decision-makers.  With a little effort, understanding and management you can contain the problem… but you won’t likely be able to eliminate it.  And sometimes containing the problem is enough.

Perhaps that month long trip to the Middle East your boss is planning to take isn’t such a bad idea after all.