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Bad Bosses

Sort 284 helps you manage your manager's mismanagement.

by Dear Jon
November 9, 2004

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ACTUAL LETTER TO DEAR JON:

Dear Jon,
 
When your boss is really screwing up on the job, what's the right response on your part?

Nervous Stomach
 
Dear Nervous,
 
That’s easy. Give your boss four more years of your blind trust in his unbridled power.
 
Sorry. I need to focus. The election, being a week over, now fits the definition of “old news.”
 
It sounds like you have the “real deal,” as in, an actual problem which calls for more than flippant satire. My advice should be to “Ask Amy®,” the syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune®, but as you might be aware, I do not always cop out on the real questions. Sometimes I actually have advice to offer.
 
I have been lucky in my career in that my bosses have been competent, and have been aware and honest about their incompetence. There was one time I had to report to someone on an organizational chart, a person who did not last a year. Most of that supervisor’s screw-ups had to do with being impolitic rather than unskilled. It really did not have much effect on my ability to do my job.
 
In another job, I became the victim in a power-struggle between partners. Competence was not the issue in that both partners knew their jobs, and knew my job, very well. They were not the most competent at partnership, however, but since I was not a controlling interest, I became very much a pawn. I solved that problem by quitting and moving to another state. That, however, was in 1996, the boom years, when people could walk out of one job and into another.
 
In this economy that might not be the wisest step to take. You feel like you need the job, but if you have a “nervous stomach,” this indicates stress. Being in the wrong working environment is bad for a person’s health. I had one job that nearly gave me ulcers. I lasted ten months, then quit. That was 1997. The economy was still booming.
 
There are many work environments, and there are many ways for bosses to screw up.  A manager in a large cubicle-based white-collar service corporation who does not have basic computer skills and uses you for cover, is a different breed from the small business owner who mixes up the accounts payable file with the accounts receivable, has no system except filing receipts in a shoe box, and then defers collectors to you. Different from either of these is the tenured department head at a private school who consistently gives you the wrong answer key for grading the multiple choice tests.
 
Having work experience in all of these environments, I can tell you horror stories, but as I have said, they are not my own.
 
When your boss is screwing up, there are some general principles to follow:
 
1. Do what you can to cultivate good relationships with other departments. If your boss is constantly calling Information Services for help on the computer, see what you can trouble-shoot first. A boss who is constantly crying “Wolf” to the support departments can develop a reputation that you do not want your department to have.
 
2. Be kind, respectful and cheerful to your boss’s administrative assistant. Be sure that it is the assistant’s pleasure to communicate with you. Be kind and respectful to all of the executive and administrative assistants in the company. VP and presidential assistants should know you for a good person and conscientious employee.
 
3. Competently execute your tasks; complete your projects on reasonable schedules. Be good at what you do. This way, when you need to ask for extensions, you have proven your case by having a record of being on deadline or ahead of schedule.
 
4. Get to know what your co-workers are good at doing.
 
5. If you are functionally networked so that the support departments, administrative assistants, and co-workers can separate your value to the company from your boss’s value, you might be able to ask for a transfer to another department, another shift, another supervisor, or another project.
 
6. If your boss shifts the blame for incompetence to you, and makes it a matter of record on the performance evaluation, take up your grievance with the personnel department and follow channels. I know of situations where a person’s complaint after a poor review has actually been confirmed by Human Resources as part of a pattern of incompetence in the supervisor who made the review.
 
7. If your boss is screwing up bad, it will catch up on him or her. Maybe you are the receptionist in a small business, and the mistakes of your boss will cost you the job because the business will close. In that case, you do not have many options except to remain competent, dependable and cheerful in order to angle for a good recommendation. In corporations and other settings, the pattern of incompetence cannot remain hidden for long. Generally, incompetence surfaces across a wide spectrum of the boss’s duties.
 
8. If your boss is feeling the pressure and is trying to make you take responsibility for the mismanagement, then, if you must, remind the boss of your job description. Be frank about what is beyond YOUR competence to solve. Make suggestions about where to network for trouble-shooting.
 
9. So often, the help that is suggested can only be received through an admission by your boss of guilt and fault. This, to good quality bosses, may be difficult to accept, but they are mature enough to be culpable. Be sympathetic, and be persistent. You might be surprised: Maybe your boss is on a steep learning curve on a project that is new to everyone. Maybe your boss is actually of good quality, and once the work is mastered, things will run smoothly. The poor bosses cannot admit responsibility. This isolates them more and more from the help that is available. Be sympathetic and persistent. Your boss might shoot down all of your suggestions, and might do so defensively in a manner of escalating confrontation. That is time to say, “Hey, you’re the boss.”
 
10. There will come a point where you will know you have done all you could, and you will “wash your hands” of the whole mess. Your co-workers, support crew, personnel department and administrative assistants will also know.
 
The important thing to remember is that, whether a fresh start is required someplace else, or whether you are able to stay on after your boss is gone, you will land on your feet if you remain competent, kind, and conscientious. So take a little antacid, put a smile on your face, and resolve to contribute where you can. Knowing that you are doing your part goes a long way to making that smile genuine with peace of mind.

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