This Is Not The Boss I Ordered

How to navigate a boss who lacks leadership skills and to know when it's time to go. 

by Caroline Dowd-Higgins • Member { View Profile }
Caroline Dowd-Higgins authored the book "This Is Not the Career I Ordered" and maintains the career reinvention blog of the same name (

Whispered water cooler conversations about bad bosses used to surface sporadically in work environments. These days, the complaining seems to be getting louder and less clandestine since lack of leadership is a growing frustration for professionals in a myriad of career sectors. Forbes blogger, Eric Jackson summed it up nicely stating in a recent post that stated: “Top talent leave an organization when they’re badly managed and the organization is confusing and uninspiring.”

I have been fielding numerous questions on my CBS radio show: Career Coach Caroline from people who are at their wits end dealing with an incompetent boss. Sadly, the good bosses are harder to find than those who wind up in leadership positions because of the Peter Principle where in a hierarchy employees tend to rise to their own level of incompetence. We aren’t teaching enough leadership skills at university and in a tough economy, professional development budgets have been slashed or eliminated. Well meaning individuals who land roles as leaders often make your work life hellish because as nice as they are, (and some are not!) they are inept at leading. So what’s a professional to do?

Take Control

I’ve seen many professionals leave great companies and wonderful jobs because of bad bosses. While leaving is always an option, in a tight job market you should consider a few other things first. Take control of how you operate in your work environment and how you communicate with your boss. Figure out your boss’s work and communication style and deliver your message accordingly. For example, does your boss respond better to verbal or written communication? Does he need specific details or a big picture overview? Is she a planner or more spontaneous in implementing the mission of the organization? Most conflicts in the workplace come from differences in personality, communication, and work styles. Understanding how your boss operates may alleviate some of your stress and give you and your boss better clarity of expectations. So watch and listen, and ask others who have some institutional history to share their strategies for dealing with your boss.

Manage Up

In many workplaces, the boss does not notice what their staff is doing unless they are on fire (literally!) or if something goes terribly wrong. If you are chugging away, producing great results, chances are your boss will focus more on his work since you don’t appear to need anything. While the autonomy may seem liberating, you must make sure that you manage up  so your boss and her boss know the value you bring to the organization. If you don’t tell the powers that be what a great return on investment you are — you may stay a well kept secret and that will stunt your professional growth within the organization and beyond.

Don’t wait for an annual performance review to showcase what you do well. Schedule a periodic check-in or send written updates documenting your results and initiatives. Consider creating a portfolio that illustrates exactly how you impact your organization positively. This evidence will also help you plead your case when you are seeking a raise or promotional opportunity.

Boss from Hell

While some bosses just need leadership training — others are beyond repair. If your boss behaves unethically, egregiously, or harasses you — get yourself to Human Resources immediately. There are labor laws to protect you and you deserve a healthy and safe work environment. Don’t worry about being the bad cop, let the Human Resources people advocate on your behalf and document the unacceptable behavior of your boss so you have a record.

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