Working with ineffective bosses

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We have all had ineffective bosses at one time or another in our careers. Alas, there are many reasons for poor leadership. Bad leadership can be the result of lack of experience, communication skills or lack of emotional intelligence. When the situation is the result of knowledge gaps, it CAN help to let your boss know what you need from him or her. And frankly, you should always try to communicate your needs to your boss, even if they aren’t receptive. But often, poor leadership is the result of depending too much on one leadership style.

Regardless of why your boss is an ineffective leader, it’s not your role to “fix” your boss. So, you’re going to have to figure out how to work with them for the time being. Because leadership style is so often the culprit, first we’ll take a look at the different management styles. Then we’ll look at some ways you can manage a boss with a specific style.

Leadership styles

Get to know your manager – their likes, dislikes, expectations and habits. Their communication style is an important piece of information that can help you tailor the focus and level of detail that you share with them.  Knowing your boss’ leadership style is the first step in learning how to best deal with him/her effectively. The three basic management styles are Autocratic, Democratic and Laissez-Faire.  While the Democratic leader can still be a poor manager, most often, issues with managers come from those who adopt a more autocratic or laissez-faire style. The best managers combine different elements from all three styles since there is a time and place for each approach. Many managers, however, will tend towards one of the three. 

Autocratic – The autocrat maintains control, making decisions directly. They provide specific instructions. They limit the decision-making of their employees. They may be Pacesetters, setting high standards and demanding the same of all others. They are often focused on negative feedback and corrective actions.

Democratic – The democratic leader makes decisions but considers the opinions of one or more team members. They strive to gain consensus. They leverage the knowledge and skills of the group. They may be Affiliative, striving to maintain harmony and connect people together, focusing on the results of the group versus the individual.

Laissez-faire – Rather than maintaining control of decisions, the laissez-faire manager lets employees make decisions directly. The “pure” laissez-faire manager provides little leadership, simply lets things happen and does not intervene.  But laissez-faire managers can also be Coaches, focusing on the individual and helping them see how to improve their performance. They may also be Visionaries, capable of painting a vision for the team and letting them run with it.

The Autocratic manager

The pure autocratic manager can be extremely hard to work with. Many leaders get to where they are because of their intellect and business acumen, not their relationship skills and emotional intelligence. You can learn a great deal from a smart but difficult leader if you can set aside their personality and focus on the knowledge they have to offer. It’s important that early on in the relationship you assess your personal motivations. What do you have to gain by getting along with this person? 

They often have a very abrasive style, which you should avoid taking personally. Listen to the message and do your best not to focus on the tone or style of delivery. If the abrasive style goes over the line to bullying and harassment, you’ll want to start thinking about taking action. My article 8 things you can do when you have a toxic boss covers how to document the situation.

Besides tone and style, Autocratic managers can prefer to keep information to themselves, making it difficult to stay on top of strategic direction and transformation. Leverage formal communications channels proactively as a starter. You can also establish a network of allies across the organization to create an informal communication channel.

Finally, it’s never a good idea to surprise an Autocratic manager. Keep them advised of issues as they emerge. It’s not about asking for help at early stages, but sharing that there is a problem and how you are handling it. If it escalates, they’ll be aware.

The Laissez-faire manager

The Laissez-faire manager is a completely different profile, usually with an extreme hands-off approach to management. Because they are not involved in the day to day workings of their team, they tend to have limited knowledge about how things work, and delegate downwards often.

Whether or not you enjoy it, with a manager like this you need to embrace autonomy. Forge your own path and manage yourself as best you can. If your manager isn’t responsive to requests for help or questions about how to do things, you’ll want to establish a network of experts around you who you can ask for help.

You’ll also want to provide your own visibility within the organization. Chances are, the Laissez-faire manager isn’t talking much to others about the team’s work or individual contributions. Find ways to share your key projects with others via best practice forums or other communication methods. Establish a relationship with your 2nd line manager if at all possible and keep them posted of your major accomplishments.

As with the Autocratic manager, Laissez-faire managers often don’t share information. In their case, they aren’t keeping it for themselves, they are simply negligent about passing it on. Sometimes, asking for more information can yield the “forward” of a key communication. But you’ll want to take the same measures mentioned above establishing your own sources for information.

Finally, even if your manager isn’t interested in knowing the details of your day to day work, you’ll want to keep them informed about your decisions and issues. They probably won’t do anything with it, but at the end of the day, you want to be able to demonstrate that your manager was aware of important issues and decisions if there is a problem down the line.

First line managers

The beauty and the curse of first line management is that you have the capability to create a different environment for your team than the broader environment in your organization. So, if you have an autocratic or laissez-faire manager, you can take matters in your own hands with your team.

Start by adopting your own management system. You can establish communication and a collaborative work environment within your own team. You can also help your team by pushing back on unreasonable demands and suggesting alternatives and trade-offs. It won’t always work, but it’s a win whenever it does.

Help your team members know what to expect when they are meeting with the boss. You can give them guidance about the boss’ leadership and communication style and help them learn how to interact effectively.