Working for a Boss Who Isn’t Knowledgeable? Ask Madeleine

Boss Dislike The Ideas VectorDear Madeleine,

How can one learn when his boss isn’t knowledgeable? I belong to a human resources team and have been facing situations where my boss either doesn’t give the right answers or doesn’t give an answer at all.

Since I like to keep trust within the team, I tend to avoid sending e-mails to my boss if there is no major problem. That leaves me with the option of calling him. However, he doesn’t give me straight answers and often changes the topic when I ask him something.

If he does provide an answer and later things go wrong, he denies having provided the answer. This can get critical and embarrassing when dealing with colleagues across departments.

I have only five years of work experience and want to learn more. I have been looking for a mentor who can not only enhance my technical knowledge, but also help me grow as a person. But with this bad boss, I am constantly disappointed as I am very passionate about my field and my boss is the opposite.


Eager to Learn

Dear Eager,

You are not alone. As I was reviewing all of my letters from 2015, the number one issue people write to me about is an endless variation of “my boss is an imbecile.” In fact, if you Google my boss is an idiot, you get all kinds of good advice.

The New York Times published the results of a study conducted by their research and analytics department. For the question Do you think you are smarter than your boss?, 5 percent of respondents checked the box in everything, 14 percent checked in most things, and a whopping 56 percent checked in some things.

At this point, I need to mention that I always advise leaders to hire people who are smarter than themselves if they want to have a smart learning organization!

Actually, your situation sounds like three separate problems, all of which have slightly different potential solutions.

Problem #1: Your boss is actually misinformed and gives you incorrect answers that cause real problems for the people you support.

Your solution here is to stop depending on your boss for answers and discover your own resources to get the correct answers to questions you need. The Society for Human Resource Management has an amazing website designed to provide answers and resources. You might consider asking your company to pay for you to get an HR certificate so that you can build your knowledge base.

Another great site is HR Bartender. Sharlyn Lauby is a former HR consultant and devotes her site to helping HR folks like you get it right. Send her your questions. If she doesn’t know the answer she will track down someone who does. Legions of people in the workplace cannot count on their bosses for accurate and useful answers—and the ones who are successful cultivate other sources for development. This problem can be solved.

Problem #2: Your boss lies to cover up his errors.

Again, you are among throngs of people who have bosses who have a weak character and lack integrity. Everyone has a character flaw or two. The very lucky have bosses whose flaws don’t actually get in the way of the job. But your boss’s flaws will only continue to cause problems for you. This problem is not solvable. So—what to do?

You have a couple of choices. You can decide to stay where you are and work around your boss until he gets either promoted or discovered for who he really is. Or you could start looking for someone else to work for, either in your current company or somewhere else. You have five years in the workplace—that’s enough experience to decide what is most important to you. You need to figure out if you want to spend any more valuable time working for someone you don’t respect.

Problem #3: Your boss doesn’t care about the company, the field of human resources, or, apparently, you.

It is a manager’s job to help his employees be successful, and this is clearly not the case here. Your choice remains as outlined above.

We can learn a lot from terrible bosses—probably even more than from good ones. In fact, I find that young workers are often so busy looking for what’s wrong with their boss that they fail to notice what’s right. Take note of all the ways in which your boss is awful and make sure you never behave this way when you have employees.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard

Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

7 thoughts on “Working for a Boss Who Isn’t Knowledgeable? Ask Madeleine

  1. An excellent article. I am in the same or similar situation. I have learnt from him more than I thought previously. I was frustrated but not now. I work on finding my own way. Since he doesn’t bother. Thank you

  2. The article spoke to me personally. I guess I would be one of those bad managers. Due to headcount spread, I’ve received a reporting analyst in my team. Reporting and analytics are not my specialty or strength. In many cases the analyst knows a lot more than I do, I tend to say go with it on many things. I do my best to manage through what is given to me. On the people management side, I’m 100% engaged.

    What do you do in these kinds of situations? For the rest of my team, I’m very interactive and can manage the process.

    • Kristoff, thank you so much for weighing in on this. I too have managed folks who are doing jobs I barely understand with skill I do not have. My job was to support the employees and understand how their piece worked with the whole. With technology advances this kind of a new normal. The difference though, between you and the person in the letter is that you admit it, you show up for your employee. You aren’t going to fake an answer and then lie about it. It sounds like you own your own ignorance and don’t try to act as if you do know things you don’t. The only option is to support your employee in going to find the right answers from the right place or person. The key is transparency, staying engaged with your employees and providing the resources they need to do their jobs well and grow. Just your self awareness about your situation is a great sign. So don’t feel bad Kristoff, it sounds like you are doing a good job!

  3. Pingback: Ask Madeleine: Top 5 Questions of 2016 | Blanchard LeaderChat

  4. Problem #2: I would also recommend resorting back to communication through email. If you boss is causing issues and then lying about giving bad information, it would be wise to get all future correspondence in writing to cover your own butt should you ever need proof of his/her poor direction.

  5. I am currently having this very problem, weighing out endless “cause-effect” scenarios that willingly come with a supervisor position within a corporate financial institution. I have always attempted to maintain the whole “transparency” aspect (for reasons other than it being blatantly beneficial on a personal and work-life level). I recently came across an INGENIOUS STATEMENT that said “just because someone is in a position of authority, doesn’t mean he or she knows everything. From that point forward, I stopped assuming that the title “manager” was the equivalent of an ‘all knowing’ position. However, I have a difficult time distinguishing that from “purposeful ignorance” by choice alone. We can tip-toe around the topic at hand all day, but ultimately what it boils down to is fulfilling a personal expectation we have set forth for ourselves and obtaining it on a level that we deem successfully gratifying.

    I struggle with this on a daily basis, so maybe it will help to think about like this: “How can we attest stagnant tendencies an immediately become critical, while expecting alternate results within another individual that we are so quick to chastise”????? ——–When we can ALL answer that question- LOOK OUT!!!!!

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