What do you do if your boss is a fool?

There’s plenty of guidance on the art of being a good leader (most important asset: trustworthiness) and how to create an atmosphere of collaboration at work.

What is less frequently discussed is, unfortunately, surprisingly common: your boss is a fool.

How is it that someone who has few people skills, can’t make decisions, is a bully or takes credit for everyone else’s work ever got to be a boss in the first place?

There’s a fair chance that their own boss is a fool too and can’t grasp the qualities of good leadership despite all the books they read at business school. In the same way that bad generals usually have poor soldiers, business leaders usually suffer the same fate. In the best run organizations, though, fools can get to the top or near enough to it to make your working life a misery.

First, make sure it’s your boss and not you

Sorry to say this but most people who are numbskulls are the last to know it. There’s a chance, an outside one of course, that you could be the problem. Call together some close, reliable friends, the type who will tell you if you have a shred of lettuce caught in your teeth.

Insist they must be utterly frank, then ask them to say if, in any way, they think you have a touch of the jackass in you. Do you make irrational decisions, always talk other people down, continually arrive late or unprepared for meetings – let them expose any of your qualities that might render you culpable.

You’ve been cleared. What’s next?

If you were ever taunted or bullied at school, what advice did your parents give you? They probably told you to ignore it because that’s the easiest and only non-confrontational approach there is. Given that it’s the easiest option, try it first.

Accept instructions and guidance if there’s any on offer from your boss but don’t engage further. If they try to involve you in small talk, plead time constraints and move on. Whenever they cross the line into foolish behaviour, don’t react by letting them know they’ve got to you.

Bullies in every walk of life require victims and, if you decline the offer, most will soon lose interest in jerking your chain.

If ignoring the problem doesn’t help, it’s time for action.

Talking is your first resort

Just as you might not know it if you were a bonehead, it’s just possible your boss doesn’t either. Get them to one side, somewhere you can chat comfortably and privately. As diplomatically as possible, lay out your complaints.

But don’t make them personal. Make it sound like a problem shared. You might start like this:

Harry, we have something important that you and I need to address. I hope we can be open and frank with each other and that you’ll appreciate my sharing this with you as the best way towards a solution for both of us.”

After your opening, proceed carefully outlining your issues. If your boss really is as foolish as you think, they’re likely to interrupt as soon as you pause for breath. Either to launch a counterattack against you or to try to persuade you it’s all in your imagination.

Resist politely, but firmly: “I need you to let me finish. Let me lay the whole thing out in front of you, then we can see how best to deal with it.”

Expect all kinds of bullet dodging: 

“If I’m really such a problem, how come you’re the only one complaining?”
Answer: “Perhaps I’m the only one honest enough.”

“This is a tough environment. Maybe you need a less stressful job.”
Answer: “The work stress is fine. Your management style raises the stress level considerably.”

“I’ve been doing this for fifteen years. I should know my stuff by now.”
Answer: “I’m not questioning your experience.”

Once you have everything off your chest, encourage your boss to discuss how you both can own this problem and work together to fix it. If the blood pressure levels are too high, make an arrangement for the following day. Don’t let your boss try to push out the follow up beyond a day or two. After all, they may take the view that, if they ignore you, the problem will go away.

If, after all that, nothing changes, what then?

Stronger measures are required

In the harsh, competitive world of business, the humane approach may not work. The boss may be so far gone they’ve actually forgotten, or never known, how to accept responsibility for their actions. Now you have to gather your own troops, fellow sufferers who are prepared to speak out.

Don’t try this next step alone unless you’re experiencing anything worse than idiocy. You’ll end up in a ‘he said, she said’ situation which will eventually end in the boss being vindicated.

Of course if you’re being subjected to physical or emotional abuse, you must raise the flag immediately. 

Ask trusted colleagues if they share your view of the boss. See this as another chance to check that you’re not being irrational or contributing to the boss’ behaviour. If your workmates are on board, arrange for them to co-sign a report on the senior person’s behaviour.

That’s when you’ll know who your real friends are. Sadly, many people are happy to take a stand behind the scenes but the idea of going public leaves them like a rabbit in the headlights. They fear loss of face, reprisals, ostracization and all manner of other demons.

Assuming you have enough signatures, your group should arrange a meeting with the organization’s senior manager or with the HR department to put forward your joint complaint.

What if that doesn’t work?

If the HR director happens to be your boss’ uncle or has some other reason not to take your complaint seriously, you’ve reached a decision point. Either you have to find a way of dealing with the situation or you must move on.

If you decide your job is so wonderful that putting up with a lousy boss is not such a big deal, your decision is made. Stay and make the best of it. Nothing is for ever and, who knows, your boss may move on, especially if more people – emboldened by your stand – put in complaints of their own.

If not and you’re confident of finding another position just as good or even better, see this an opportunity to grow your career. Sometimes, we need a jolt in the rear to help us see beyond our close horizons.

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