Incompetent Bosses

bad bossBeing critical of one’s boss’s abilities is pretty much part of being an employee. Workers may often take shots at their boss by saying: “He is an idiot, he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

While often, this may be simple venting, what happens if it’s true – that your boss is incompetent?

In a recent study published in The Journal of Applied Psychology, Amanda Ferguson, Margaret Ormiston and Henry Moon of the London Business School, studied the consequences of incompetent leadership.  They cite statistics that suggest managerial incompetence may be as high as 75 per cent in the U.S.

The authors noted that when the boss performed poorly, subordinates tended to cope in two ways:


First, they compensated for the boss and did his or her work.  This strategy usually worked in the short term, it got the job done and no one was the wiser.

Unfortunately, in the long term, this method of coping generates resentment, burnout and turnover.  Staff who compensate for a poorly performing supervisor wind up angry and disillusioned.  Not only is the boss usually better paid than the subordinate, holding the position of manager or director implies superior knowledge, expertise or ability relative to other positions.  If a manager does not have the expertise to get the job done and higher functioning subordinates end up compensating for the leader’s lack, resentment ensues.  Highly competent but resentful employees eventually think about leaving the organization.  When they do, they leave a lame-duck boss behind, taking their expertise, knowledge and ability with them.  The cost to the organization in this case is profound.

To add to the problem, until the talented subordinate left the company, the problem of the hobbled boss was probably hidden.  Once the employee left, the boss was exposed – unless an equally competent subordinate took over the job of covering for the boss.

The authors note that it is common for subordinates to compensate in this manner due to the difference in power between themselves and the unsuccessful leader.  Subordinates are unlikely to confront a floundering director and more likely to find non-combative ways to navigate the situation.  Fear of reprisal or job loss may drive an employee to cover up the leader’s errors, re-do the report or take over the task completely rather than risk failure.  Blaming subordinates rather than the manager can be a handy fallback and to avoid being the target of ill will at work, many subordinates would prefer to just perform tasks for the boss.

Ironically, subordinates who make up for the boss don’t get the credit and simultaneously build the manager’s reputation as capable, successful and high functioning.  Hence, the problem continues to go unnoticed in the organization until the worker finds another more satisfying position and by then it may be too late.  Morale in departments headed by incompetent managers propped up by exemplary staff tends to dip and wane.  Disengagement results and productivity eventually suffers when a “Why-should-I-bother?” mentality consumes the workplace.


A second coping strategy among workers left to do the manager’s job is to reject, isolate and even exclude the ineffectual superior.  Rather than disengage, high performing staff may elect to ignore the manager altogether.  They get the job done and well, but refuse to engage the supervisor in any meaningful way.  Generally this behaviour indicates disgust on the part of staff who no longer respect the leader, yet still work hard to accomplish organizational goals.  The leader is left out of meetings, not consulted, invited to comment or, in some cases ignored, rejected and socially isolated.  The work of the department continues uninterrupted but the leader is iced.  Eventually, this situation becomes unworkable, as fed-up workers contribute to a hostile and uncivil workplace with an undercurrent of disrespect for leadership. Again, these workers are more likely to leave in the long run.

Ensuring that your company does not allow poor performers to linger in leadership is important to offsetting the costs of disengaged or resentful high performers who eventually leave for better environments.  If employers have reason to suspect that a leader is performing less than optimally, leaving them in the position to sink or swim will damage not only the leader’s self image but that of the company.  If a company has a reputation of allowing leaders to get away with incompetence or to be propped up by subordinates, the organization will be hampered in producing results and unable to attract talent.  High-functioning staff talk amongst peers sending a steer clear message to potential candidates.

The best approach to take with struggling leaders is to identify the areas in need of training or support and provide it.  Continuing to allow the leader to lead without these options is a recipe for burnout and frustration, according to Ferguson, Ormiston and Moon. Also, if businesses hire carefully, they can prevent situations in which leaders are ineffectual.  Providing leadership training to technically strong new hires or added technical training for hires  already adept at leading, is key.

Dr. Jennifer Newman is a registered psychologist and director of Newman Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development company.  Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.  Dr. Newman can be contacted at:

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