November 8

How to deal with an incompetent boss


Too long, didn’t read? Key takeaways

  • give your boss a chance
  • respect your boss
  • assume the best of him
  • understand your driving forces, and his driving forces


So you have an incompetent boss. Welcome to the club.

To think of your boss as incompetent…it’s really bad, isn’t it?

But you wouldn’t think of him this way if he knew how to do his job.

If he wasn’t always asking you to cover up and do his work.

If he wasn’t always asking for help at presentations, and looking to you to answer questions from others.

If he wasn’t always taking credit for what you do.

If he actually stopped talking so much, and started doing some work.

If he actually even knew what he was talking about.

I may not know exactly how incompetent your boss is, but we’ve all been there. We’ve all had bosses where we go,

How did that guy become my boss?

Why this happens

Management, leadership, and executing, are three very different types of work. That’s why you may often see bosses that seem incompetent.It might be that they have been promoted based on what they were able to do at a lower level, executing and doing the daily tasks.

Then they were asked to start managing and leading others. That’s a completely different skill set.

They may be given a 5 day course on ‘How to be a manager’ and then go onto managing the work of others under their care. A 5 day course, a certificate of participation, a pat on the back, and there!

You’re ready to be a boss.

Scary, isn’t it?

There is the saying that people are promoted to their level of incompetence. That’s why it’s hard for people who have not previously led to take the leadership role.

I don’t say this to discount how your boss’ incompetence may be affecting you. But I say this so that you and I can have more compassion on what our bosses may be going through, incompetent or not. They are human. They are not trying to make your life difficult. They may just have been dealt a bad hand.

The question is,

How do you deal with an incompetent boss?

It can be broken down into:

  1. Why you see your boss as incompetent
  2. Why it’s so hard to work with incompetent bosses
  3. How to work with incompetent bosses

What is competence?

Before even plunging into how to work with an incompetent boss, it’s worth defining what competence even is.

Defined by the National Social Work Competency Framework in Singapore, competencies are,

measurable or observable knowledge, skills and behavioural attributes that enable individuals to perform their job responsibilities effectively.

NSWCF, pg 50

The simple answer is,

you can do your job effectively.

In Gallup’s seminal study on what the best bosses did differently, they caution against using competencies.

Competencies are part skills, part knowledge, and part talent. They lump together, haphazardly, some characteristics that can be taught with others that cannot.

First, Break All The Rules, pg 104

Skills, knowledge and talent are different. According to Gallup, skills are the how-to. Knowledge is the ‘what you are aware of’

Skills and knowledge can be trained. Talent, cannot.

As harsh as this may sound, before you go calling your boss incompetent, maybe it’s useful to think,

What exactly is he incompetent in?

He’s incompetent, measured according to whose standards?

Why you see your boss as incompetent

This seems like a stupid question. Why do you see your boss as incompetent? He’s just incompetent! Is that even a question worth asking?

Yes, because understanding why helps you to clarify how you can better work with him.

When you go to your boss, you usually go with one of 4 questions.

  1. Where do we go?
    1. You’re asking for direction, vision, strategy.
  2. How do I do?
    1. You’re asking for guidance on how to get a particular piece of work done.
  3. What to do?
    1. You’re asking what you should be focusing on.
  4. Are you getting the work done?
    1. Is your boss setting an example with the work you need him to be doing?

When he’s unable to answer these questions effectively, or to your expectations, that’s when you start thinking that he’s incompetent and incapable.


Different personalities

Each of us come into work with differing values and driving forces. We are motivated by different things. Your boss too.

Thomas Erikson, in ‘Surrounded by Bad Bosses’ (I know, not a great title to sell to a boss… but a great title to sell to you!), shares about how we have different driving forces.

Driving forces, adapted from Thomas Erikson, in 'Surrounded by Bad Bosses'
Driving forces, adapted from Thomas Erikson, in ‘Surrounded by Bad Bosses’

Looking back, I clashed many times with my previous boss over the way he did things because we were motivated by fundamentally different driving forces.

For example, I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t address differences in the team. My colleagues and I had clashed several times over different approaches to work. In one instance, an administrative assistant had complained to bosses, supervisors, and anyone who would listen, about how I gave too much detergent away to a client.

I felt irritated and angry that I hadn’t been spoken directly to. Instead, my misdemeanours were shared with everyone… but me. This wasn’t the first time.

Instead of taking time to sit us down, and to talk things out, and to try to draw out the elephant in the room, he arranged an individual meeting with me to tell me how I shouldn’t do that in future.

From my own utilitarian point of view, a better approach of addressing conflict would have been to sit both of us down. It would have been more pragmatic, saved time, and effectively created a clear method of collaboration moving forward.

Looking back, I personally believed (and I may be wrong!) that it was because of his individualistic quest for more influence. Addressing issues within the team would come as a severe threat to his power base. He therefore saw it as more important to ‘manage’ me.

Different personalities make it hard for you to see things from your boss’ point of view. After all, differing value systems can make you think that your boss should be doing something, when he doesn’t think that way. Thus, at that time, I thought of him as incompetent. But later, he explained that his role wasn’t to solve differences in working styles. That was the worker’s role.

Different behavioural patterns

Then there are different behaviours. Everyone is unique. You can’t say that a colleague is worse because he chooses not to answer his email after working hours.

These behaviours are captured under the DISC system, first introduced by William Marston.

The problem is, they might irritate you.

How can you say this is a matter of behavior?! This is a question of professionalism! Getting the work done!

I may not know exactly how you feel. But it did make things very difficult for me when I first entered the workforce as a full-time professional, in my first job.

I’m someone RED. I take the initiative and am fast-paced. I thus used to think of my boss as ineffective when he didn’t reply me about certain projects.

I would push him with chaser emails, but not get anything back.

But it was just a question of different behavior. I failed to notice that my boss was more yellow. He wanted to consult, share ideas, be open, before finally committing to a decision. He didn’t want to move too quickly and look insensitive to the ideas of others by approving my project prematurely.

Having different behavioral patterns from your boss may influence the way you think of his competence. He may not necessarily be incompetent, but may be communicating his competence in a different way. For example, your boss may measure his success according to the quality of the relationships at work, whilst you may measure it according to the quality of the task completed.

Different styles, but they may end up causing different opinions.

The different behavioral patterns, from Surrounded by Bad Bosses, by Thomas Erikson, p.41
The different behavioral patterns, from Surrounded by Bad Bosses, by Thomas Erikson, p.41

How to work with an incompetent boss

Know that leadership is a communication process

Leadership is a communication process, nothing else.

Thomas Erikson, Surrounded by Bad Bosses, p30

If you knew this, it makes working with an incompetent boss better. They have a problem with their communication style. You may not change that.

But here’s the hope.

You can change yours.

Your boss may not be incompetent, he just may not be communicating his competence very well.

Why does understanding this change things? Because when you see that leadership is a communication process, then you stop trying to change the person’s actions.

You start trying to understand what the person is trying to say. You start listening more. You start adapting to your boss, rather than expecting your boss to adapt to you.

  • You stop trying to tell your boss what’s wrong.
  • You stop trying to ‘persuade’ your boss.

Erikson adds more detail about why bad bosses have communicated so badly.

Bad bosses, such as those that you and I have come across over the years, have been bad at communicating.

They haven’t listened, they’ve talked too much about themselves; sometimes they’ve behaved badly and sometimes they’ve been decidedly despotic.

And in most cases they’ve based everything on their own worldview, a worldview that has been ridiculously one-sided.

You see, I used to blame my boss for being bad. I felt they were guilty of all the above.

One day, a senior colleague took me to one side and said,

The best bosses do nothing for you.

If you want to do something, you take your own personal responsibility.

No one owes you anything.

Communicate your needs

I was once issued a Performance Improvement Plan for my job. If you’re not familiar, it’s a

Shape up or ship out plan.

It says,

Get better or get out.

There’s a clear series of targets you need to make, or you will start being exited from the organisation.

I felt that my supervisors were not helping me. On the list was a series of learning opportunities in teamwork, working with difficult people, following procedures that I disagreed with, that I had to change.

But I had no idea how to do it. I felt that my supervisors should provide some guidance.

You might think,

How do you expect your boss to teach you soft skills like this?

Shouldn’t you learn them yourself?

My supervisor would sit with me monthly and go through the targets to see if I met them. She would report that no one had complained of me not doing these things. But surely an absence of complaints wasn’t a presence of performance?

I had no idea what meeting expectations on these soft skills looked like.

In hindsight, I should have gone and said,

This isn’t working. Can we talk about it?

That would have been taking personal responsibility, rather than expecting someone else to do so.


I need your help,

gives your boss a chance to help. Your boss can’t read your mind. Don’t expect them to.

Understand your boss’ color

Thomas Erikson’s hit series of books – ‘Surrounded by Idiots/Bad Bosses’ have been based on Marston’s DISC personality test.

Understanding your boss’ behavioral patterns helps you to adjust your behavior so that you can better collaborate and make things happen.

DISC personality test
DISC personality test

Understand your color

It’s not enough to just know your boss’ behavioral style. It’s important to know yours too. Because your behavioural style will determine what works for you. There’s no point trying to pretend to be someone you’re not. Your inauthenticity will show.

Based on your color, here’s how you can better adapt to your boss’ style.

Quit if your driving forces fundamentally clash.

There was a time when I quit my job without another job offer lined up on the table. Without another job offer lined up on the table, it seemed dumb. Was I just trying to starve myself and play the high and mighty game?

But here’s the thing.

My driving forces had clashed so many times with my boss’, that I found it more harmful to stay than to leave.

My boss held an individualistic quest for more power and authority. We were doing things that looked nice on the surface, but did little to impact the clients we were trying to help. These projects would raise the profile of our organisation, but in terms of real impact for the client… there was little.

We were doing more of the same, rather than boldly expanding into new projects. We were talking a lot, but not doing much.

But I was driven by a utilitarian desire to do what worked. I hated pasting nice looking plasters over deeper gashes. I hated solving the symptoms, without resolving the roots.

If you can’t work with your boss, leave. I know, there’s better advice than just quitting and running away. Who’s to say that you wouldn’t find such an incompetent boss in your next workplace?

But there are limits to how much you can flourish if you continue to stay.


I wrote this for one reason.

Everyone deserves to live an extraordinary life.

But sometimes, the bosses you have may make that extraordinary life impossible. It’s not your fault. Nor is it your boss’ fault. Many bosses have been promoted to the point of incompetence, where they are issued a 5-day course on ‘management’ and thrown into the deep end.

Know this.

Take personal responsibility for your own development. Even if you face an incompetent boss, understand his and your communication style so that both of you can communicate better.

At the end of the day, it’s not what your boss can do for you.

It’s what you can do for yourself.


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