Dealing with Incompetent Leaders
By Carole Nicolaides
As a mid-level employee, you’ve been working for the ACME Company, a
manufacturing firm, for the past two years. Your job performance has been
solid, and on occasion, even praiseworthy. However due to the current
economic conditions – poor profit earnings, massive layoffs and company
restructuring, you now find yourself working for a new boss. Ordinarily
reporting to a new leader would not pose a real problem but this time it
feels different -- management practices have changed. The team environment
has been transformed from one of true collaboration, honest dialogue and a
commitment to problem solving to one where backstabbing, finger pointing
and plain fear are the norms. Congratulations – you are now under the
control of an “incompetent” leader!
An “incompetent” leader by definition is someone whose action destroys
camaraderie, instill gossip, encourage dishonesty, and prevent people from
speaking freely. “Incompetent” leaders tend to use their own weapons to
get noticed and promoted. They usually lack vision, interpersonal
communication skills and confidence to resolve conflict.
You might think the term “incompetent” leaders should only be reserved for
those in the company’s upper echelon such as the Chief Executive Officer
of Chief Financial Offer.
After all, aren’t they the ones entrusted with setting the direction for
the entire organization? While this may be true to a certain extent – CEOs
do serve as the “compass” for the company, but many CEOs are not directly
involved in the daily operations of their organizations. Those
responsibilities fall on the shoulders of senior and middle managers. And,
it is the “collective leadership” of those managers -- their style of
execution, their effective ability to communicate, manage and motivate
their teams that keep companies on course. If a leader lacks the
competency to manage his or her team, then team morale diminishes,
productivity and performance drops, and companies ultimately fail. What’s
worst is the fact that today we live in a heavy Information Economy where
bad news about a company spreads instantly thereby allowing competitors to
profit from your company’s incompetent leadership.
In the quest to attain “better and cheaper staff,” one would think that
organizations had all the advantages needed to rid their companies of
every single under-performing employee – managers included. However,
nothing could be farthest from the truth. Unfortunately in many cases, it
is the good, high-performing, mid-level employees who first are shown the
door, while ineffective managers – the ones who really need to take a hike
For whatever reason these foul apples may have been left behind; the fact
that they are present causes a lot of problems either through their
actions or sometimes through their inactions. The truth is that
“incompetent leaders” have always existed and will continue to exist
despite the best efforts from HR and other performance improvement
initiatives to detect and remove them before bringing irreparable harm to
So what can you do to protect yourself and survive working for an
“incompetent” leader? Here are some quick tips:
1. Do not make it a personal matter. This is a hard one, simply
because working for an incompetent boss is such a personal matter.
Remember, that most of these leaders do not have a problem directly with
you, but they too are frustrated and are shouting loud their own
insecurities -- most likely mirroring to you things that they should be
2. Observe Your Boss. It might sound funny, but notice what is
going on around your boss. In case you’ve known or worked with your boss
before and you observe a sudden change, then your next step should be to
take action right away. The problem could be as simple as someone asking
him something way out of his league, or someone talking to him about you
and your team. Whatever the reason might be you need to act and confront
your boss as soon as possible. If you do this at the beginning, you might
be able to stop a snowball effect -- not only for you but also for the
entire team. Confrontation does not come easy for most people, yet if you
seek a constructive conversation, have an open mind, avoid turning it into
a personal attack, you might be able to ease tensions with your boss and
also improve his position.
3. Accumulate Facts. Nothing is irrelevant if you work in an
unhealthy environment. You need to make sure that you accumulate all the
things that matter for your career -- the good as well as the bad stuff.
Good things that you’ve done, bad things that have happened to you, and
things that you could have done better. The key here is to have nothing
against you, nothing that will give people permission to talk about you
and question your character.
4. Know Your Value. You might feel beaten down, overworked, under
appreciated and doubtless about your true value. Grow up! Things happen
and your value does not diminish simply because one cannot see your true
value. If you are a professional, do a good job, and the people that work
with you will see a direct contribution to the team’s success. Then be
sure that you have created your own evangelists – people who will tell
others about your true value.
5. Expand Your Network. Now, more than ever, you need to think that
working for a large company is not very different than working on your
own. You need to learn to promote yourself. People need to know who you
are, within your company and outside your company. Successful business
owners never stop networking. There are so many things you can learn
simply by networking. The key here is to find 2 or 3 networking
initiatives that you feel comfortable doing and commit to them.
6. Seek For Comfort Outside Your Office. Many people often make
this mistake. They work for an incompetent boss and they start complaining
about her or him to a “good friend” who also works for the company. For
whatever reason this might happen because you are seeking comfort or love.
Sometimes you simply need a sounding board in order to release the
pinned-up stress. Do it outside the office and avoid discussing your
problems with others with whom you work.
Times have changed and even though it might seem hard to work for someone
that you know is not suitable for his or her position, remember things and
people appear to us to teach something. The sad reality is most
“incompetent” leaders do not get fired; they just move on and reinvent
themselves in new companies. The chance that you will either work with the
same leaders or someone like them again before your career ends is great.
However if you manage to stay calm and think about the lessons you’ve
learned and how to counteract incompetent behavior, you will have all the
wisdom needed in order to become a better leader yourself in future jobs.
Copyright ©2003, All Rights Reserved
Carole is President and Executive Coach of Progressive
Leadership, offering business coaching and leadership training to business
owners & leaders around the world. Improve your business relationships,
communication, team performance and bottom line starting now. Visit
http://www.progressiveleadership.com for more info & subscribe to her
FREE Leadership Ezine.