Dealing With a Dunce Boss

If you find yourself working for an idiot boss, you can turn the situation to your favor.

So you accept that new position, and within the first couple of weeks on the job, it all becomes clear: Your boss is an idiot. Now what?

According to John Hoover, an executive coach and author of How to Work for an Idiot (Career Press, 2003), this isn't a bad situation at all; in fact, it's an opportunity. "Most people just want to go to lunch and complain about it," he says. "But no one ever enhanced his or her career by making the boss look stupid, as much fun as that is."

Instead of trying to take power from someone higher up the food chain, Hoover says, concentrate on helping the boss appear less incompetent. Your goal should be to get yourself noticed so that you acquire the influence you need to get promoted and undo the damage the boss has done, he says.

Speak the Language

So, just how do you do that? First, learn idiotspeak, Hoover says. You do this by studying your boss -- the pictures and artifacts in his office, what he values, the actions he takes. Understanding him enables you to start speaking his language, thus making him feel comfortable with you. It also helps you better anticipate the boss's behavior, Hoover says, and you may even be able to affect his agenda.

Studying your boss closely can be enlightening, Hoover adds. "You may realize he's not passive-aggressive at all, for instance, and that he's simply being asked to do things he's not competent to do," he says. If you can fill in the gaps in the boss's competence, you become the company's go-to person, he says.

Hoover admits that some would call this "kissing up to the boss." But don't be deterred by that kind of schoolyard logic, he says. In fact, it's time to recognize your own "inner idiot," he says. That's the one who raises its head and says, "Dig in and fight! You can reign victorious."

No one ever wins that kind of power struggle, Hoover warns, adding that he has had a few struggles with his own inner idiot that have cost him career opportunities.

IT pros in particular would do well to step out of the adversarial role of smart employee vs. dumb boss and into a more empathetic one, Hoover says.

"What really brilliant code warriors demand is recognition," he says, especially for being "right." But the best way to get recognition is to "get into that place where other people are comfortable with them."

Paul Glen, founder of the Web community, says it's important to walk a mile in your boss's shoes and understand that there are different types and levels of intelligence. "I think almost everyone assumes they have a dumb boss," but it's often based on an incorrect understanding of what the boss's job is, Glen says. "The boss's job is not just to look down but out, sideways and into the future. These skills are often not valued by subordinates."

The Broad View

Taking that broader view frees you from the frustration of feeling that you're right in a world of people who are wrong, says Sergey Kalinichenko, a frequent winner of TopCoder competitions. When he first began coding, he found himself at odds with the people who interacted with the systems he was building. But once Kalinichenko realized they cared about things like the system's functionality and not about maintainability, as he did, it became much easier to deal with them.

"At first I thought, 'How can they work for a technology company with very smart engineers and not speak their language?'" Kalinichenko says. "But then I realized they shouldn't even be attempting to speak my language, and I started to understand where they were coming from."

Another strategy, according to Tim Robbins, a TopCoder competitor, is to choose your battles wisely. "If you argue every point, the relationship will be rocky," he says. But if you give the boss the benefit of the doubt when you can, you build up enough respect to disagree when you really feel it's worth it. "You'll have more political power to push through what you want," he says.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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