The Upside of a Bad Boss
One thing I've learned from years of coaching, teaching and writing about leadership is that if you want to get people engaged you address a point of pain. Judged by the reaction of my last column on poor management, the frustration and irritation (even anger) is real when it comes to dealing with a bad boss. Sadly, poor management is an epidemic, but that that is no panacea. The real question is what you do about.
Leadership is about doing what the organization needs doing and very often that requires people to stand up and take charge, or at least exert their authority in order to make a positive difference. The sad reality is that many bad bosses get promoted because they have friends in high places. This is especially true of bully bosses; they make the numbers and so when examined from on high, and without talking to the people whom the bosses bully, these nasty people get rewarded.
Fortunately most bad bosses are not bullies; they are merely incompetent, promoted into positions based on past performance where perhaps they did a good job. Now they are in roles where they are responsible for others, and so they are hopelessly lost and often they are very afraid. Such bosses need (and might even welcome) leadership from below, anything that will help them save their jobs which by rights they should not hold.
Such bosses create opportunities for bright, energetic souls of good intention to exert their leadership. Before one can lead up, it is essential to be a capable performer. That is, you need to do your job and do it well. Such competence gives you the credibility you need to act. Here are some suggestions for managing from the middle.
Think strategically. Ask yourself how well your department is fulfilling the mission of your organization? Chances are if you have a bad manager, your team is falling short. Quantify the shortcomings according to people and tasks. That is, itemize how the skills and talents of your teammates are being underutilized on "make work" tasks or overworked by pushing for unrealistic goals without adequate time, resources and manpower.
Exert influence. Consider ways you can devise solutions that you can implement. Discuss with your boss how you could address some departmental shortcomings if more authority and resources. Be specific about what you want to do with this authority and describe exactly what you will do. Develop an action plan and get it blessed by your boss. (A bully boss will not bless anything so don't bother trying, but a boss who is flailing may be receptive.)
Take action. Put your plan into action. Report your progress, as well as your obstacles, to your boss. Keep him or her apprised of your process. When possible, involve your colleagues. This positions you as a genuine leader, one who wants more than individual success but also team success.
Be politic. If your project fails, man up to it. Take the heat. If it succeeds, share credit with your team. Make certain your boss gets part of the credit; after all he sanctioned your plan. (True enough an incompetent boss should not be in a position of authority, but if you want to keep your job you need to deal with the current reality. And so in the short term you need to make him - as well as your team - look good.)
Repetition of this cycle of influence and action, based on your credibility and competence, should get you noticed. It should ultimately put you in position where you will have the formal authority to put your ideas into action as a manager complete with title and compensation. (If it does not, then consider looking for new opportunities elsewhere in the organization or outside of it.)
Even when such measures are exacted, failure is a real possibility. As long as an organization tolerates managers who are hindering the performance of individuals and teams, the company will suffer. There is no excuse for poor managers and they should be removed. But, as so many readers have acknowledged, too many bad managers stay in place. That is an issue for human resources, in conjunction with senior leaders to address. That is not an issue for those reporting to a bad manager to solve.
That said leadership from the middle is necessary to effect positive change. "The life lesson for most people is that we can still make a difference, a little bit at a time," advised Captain "Sully" Sullenberg in his recent interview with "On Leadership." "But we have to choose to do so." Choosing to change means stepping forward with initiatives to make work more meaningful and to improve the end result for customers and consumers.
Leaders are those that make good organizations good -- whether or not they have a bad boss.
October 30, 2009; 6:17 AM ET |
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