Five Ways to Survive a Clueless Boss

Posted 04.27.2011

Dunder-mifflin Well, after many years in the job, Michael Scott has left the office at Dunder Mifflin to pursue other dreams. It remains to be seen how things are going to go for the team with the new boss.

You may or may not be surprised how often I hear in my coaching work about senior level bosses who are basically clueless. The cluelessness can show up in different ways – time sucking, pointless requests that come out of left field; no clear direction; much more emphasis on bluster and style than on the substance of getting things done. The list could go on and on. (Feel free to add your own observations on what makes for a clueless boss in the comments.)

As I wrote here a few months ago, leaders can change the weather. If you’ve got a boss who is foggy and cloudy in their approach, it’s pretty easy for everyone on their team to show up foggy and cloudy. Obviously, that’s a pretty dangerous career situation for everyone in that boss’s organization. How do you help yourself and your team survive when you find yourself in a clueless boss induced fog bank?

Here are five things some of my savvy leadership coaching clients have done to survive a clueless boss:

Learn and Anticipate the Quirks – Don’t drive yourself crazy with it, but do your best to identify the pattern in the things your boss freaks out about and the things that cause them to micromanage. Do your best to get information to them ahead of time to avoid reflexive reactions from your boss later. You won’t always be successful, but you can probably help yourself and your team avoid some headaches.

Build Trust with Your Peers – When dealing with a clueless boss, you and your peers need to remember the words of Benjamin Franklin in the opening days of the American Revolution, “We must all hang together or, most assuredly, we will all hang separately.” If you haven’t already done so, start building trust based relationships with your peers. Those relationships will provide the foundation for helping each other out when the going gets weird.

Provide Perspective for Your Team – Let them know you’ve got their backs. Explain as best you can what’s going on without trashing your boss.  Share as much information as you can about what’s going in the broader organization and show them how their work ties into those the big picture goals.  That connection to a higher purpose will help keep morale up during the crazy times.

Create Visibility with the Top – Look for and act on opportunities to build relationship with your boss’s leadership peers.  If you have an opportunity to present your own case, facts, contributions or progress, take it.  Stay classy in the process.  Don’t trash your boss.  Just present the work. 

Remember, This Too Shall Pass – The good news is that clueless bosses usually don’t last forever.  They often end up moving on to “pursue other opportunities” or “spend more time with their families.”  That doesn’t make working with them any easier but it can help you keep your perspective.  On your craziest days, stop and ask yourself, “What am I supposed to be learning from this?”  Your answer might surprise and even amuse you.

OK, let’s hear what you’ve learned from your experience about how to survive a clueless boss. Leave a comment and think of it as your contribution to making life a little easier for your peers.