The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “How do you work with an incompetent boss?” is written by Nat Greene, co-founder and CEO of Stroud International and author of Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem-Solvers.
I've been asked more than once how to deal with an incompetent boss. When you find yourself in this situation, you’re likely to feel frustration and helplessness. Luckily, a change in mindset can put you back in the driver's seat and dramatically improve your relationship with your manager.
Very few bosses are completely incompetent. If your boss truly lacks competence and you can't work with them, it's time to vote with your feet and walk. But if you're going to stay, changing your focus to really understanding the problem rather than covering it up by blaming your boss will take you much further. You have a problem, and you need to take the responsibility of solving it.
Redefine the problem
Saying you have an "incompetent boss" is baking an assumption into your definition of the problem. You are experiencing some sort of issue working with them, and their competence may or may not be a contributing factor. Framing the problem as entirely in their wheelhouse is immature and dodges your own responsibility to improve the situation.
Instead, start by defining what problem you're actually facing in your work. Is it that you don't know what your expectations are? Is it that your boss doesn't understand what you communicate to them, or vice-versa? Do you feel they are unresponsive? Do you believe their decisions aren't the right ones for the business?
All of these are problems you can be part of fixing. By defining the problem correctly, you empower yourself to help, rather than to be a helpless victim.
Look beneath the surface
Everyone—including your boss—has weaknesses, and some of these weaknesses may be contributing to your problems. Other factors within your work ecosystem could be contributing as well, including your own shortcomings.
Instead of guessing at what might be driving your problem, do some investigation to understand it better. Ask yourself a few questions. When exactly do you experience the issue? Do other people in the organization experience the same problems when working with your boss? Under what conditions do you see the opposite of your problem—for example, great communication or clear expectations—occurring?
By examining these patterns, you'll start to understand what conditions are involved in the problems you're experiencing. Consider how these factors—including your own behavior—might contribute to making the problem better or worse.
Play to your strengths
As you examine the situation more deeply, you'll start to find ways to improve it other than finding a new boss. After all, you could end up with someone even worse.
Many of us don't have the authority or confidence to be able to give feedback to a boss about their deficiencies. If you do have that strong of a relationship, detailing the problem to them directly will help make them more receptive to criticism. Going around their back and complaining to others, on the other hand, will undermine their trust in you.
If you don't feel like you can coach your boss, look for ways to leverage your strengths, your boss's strengths, or the strengths of others to help mitigate the problems you’re experiencing. Consider the various ways in which you can improve your situation. How can you change your own behavior to help improve collaboration with your boss? What strengths can you bring to bear that can help them?
If you can reframe your tough relationship with your boss as an opportunity to solve a problem, you will be able to significantly improve the relationship. But if you instead choose to blame your boss for your problems, you may find yourself with a whole lot of "incompetent" managers throughout your career.