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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

What To Do When Your Boss Is a Terrible Manager

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Everyone’s dream is to work for a strong, effective, omniscient leader. The unfortunate reality, though, is that virtually every leader is flawed, and some are just downright weak and ineffective.

Chances are if you haven’t had a weak boss yet, at some point in your career you will. There are specific techniques that subordinates can use to manage up with a weak boss.  Indeed, in the absence of strong leadership, managing up can become an important key to success not just for the subordinate but for the entire organization.

Supplement your boss’s task-relationship imbalance

Virtually all weak managers have a leadership style that is too focused on either tasks or relationships (the best leaders have strong task-relationship balance). If your boss is too task focused, provide some assistance in the relationship department by volunteering to pull together a team birthday calendar or coordinate the team lunch. If your boss is too relationship focused, consider volunteering to help coordinate and manage the team action items, project schedule, or meeting agendas. Providing a sense of balance for your boss’s leadership style will make him or her more effective and mask some of the inherent limitations of their natural leadership style.

Highlight potential opportunities and dangers  

It’s important to manage up with the weak boss by alerting him to potential opportunities or dangers that he may not see. Oftentimes managers are further removed from day-to-day work, client interactions, and team discussions, so you may have insights or perspectives that he doesn’t. Proactively alerting him to potential problems or significant opportunities that he may have otherwise missed can be a huge help so don’t hesitate to do so.

Propose potential solutions and recommendations

Oftentimes subordinates are conditioned to bring problems to their boss (and expect them to come up with all the solutions). For most leaders, that’s a real buzz kill. They would much rather have subordinates bring their own recommendations for potential problems, and with a weak boss, bringing recommendations becomes even more critical.

Offer strategic support

The weak boss may not admit when he is in over his head, so volunteering to offer strategic support can sometimes mean the difference between business success and failure. Strategic support might mean sitting in for him on certain meetings if their schedule is swamped, volunteering to take over tasks where you have particular expertise, offering to be a sounding board to help him think through key issues, or providing solicited advice on a difficult issue.

Without a doubt, managing up with a weak boss can be difficult, but it is important to do it consistently and do it well. You want to ensure that you’re viewed as a help, not a threat, so lean towards offering and volunteering rather than insisting and demanding. Ultimately, remember that managing up provides a valuable opportunity to balance out your boss’s blind spots and weaknesses, and to enhance business results for all.

Dana Brownlee is author of the upcoming book The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up: Project Management Techniques from the Trenches.

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