In pretty much every superhero movie, there is a powerful person who – at first – seems like an ally. They put on a great show of being inspiring, or encouraging, or capable of creating great change. But, inevitably, they reveal themselves to be the villain with selfish and destructive motives at heart.
If you’re stuck working for a bad boss, you might see some parallels with these blockbuster flicks. While I'm not saying your supervisor is actually an evil supervillain, his or her inability to lead effectively might make you wonder how he or she managed to climb so high up the corporate ladder. This is particularly frustrating if you work in an otherwise positive environment: how did this one bad apple trick everyone else into thinking they’d be a good leader?
A sound selection system can be the first line of defense in screening out these future poor leaders. But in situations where a formal process isn’t in place, or isn’t targeted to leadership roles, you might find yourself dealing with an ineffective boss who will likely be around for a long time. If you’re driving yourself crazy with trying to figure out how they made it this far or how they fooled everyone else into thinking they were capable of a leadership role, we suggest taking a different perspective. Stop thinking of them as supervillains and start using their presence as a learning opportunity.
Here are a few reasons why bad leaders have been successful:
They give engaging high-level presentations. Most of the time, there are several people in upper management involved in the decision for whom to promote into a leadership position. While your organization’s protocol may differ, some of the key decision-makers will only have a few interactions with prospective leaders before making up their mind. In these situations, your future bad boss may shine. When it comes to buzzwords and bottom lines, these employees are typically able to play the game better than anyone else. While a flashy PowerPoint doesn’t take the place of real strategic initiative or leadership potential, these kinds of impactful presentations do matter.
If you’re trying to receive more recognition at work you should always prioritize quality and honesty, but don’t underestimate how the power of performance can also boost your role.
They understand heuristics – and use them to their advantage. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that all humans take when processing and recalling information. Our brains filter countless pieces of data in order to draw quick conclusions about complex concepts – like how we feel about other people. Maybe you see your boss make a dozen bad calls every week, but the rest of the company only sees the positive end result (after you’ve stepped in to fix all his or her mistakes, of course). These leaders are savvy to the strategy of keeping their struggles private and their wins very public so that their names become synonymous with success.
If you’re typically the opposite – quick to focus on your failures but humble when it comes to wins – remember to celebrate yourself and take credit where it’s due.Related: How Heuristics can Affect Your Interviewing and How to Avoid Them
They “manage up.” Have you witnessed this classic move? Your supervisor offloads his or her issues on you, doesn’t answer your emails, and generally passes the buck every chance he or she gets. But when it comes to interacting with executives in higher authority, your bad boss transforms into an agreeable, proactive, dedicated employee who thrives on hard work. In other words, the only management skills they possess are impression management, or the act of carefully selecting how to present oneself in order to be favorably received by a particular group. This is related to heuristics, but encompasses a wider range of purposeful behaviors which, in this case, give the illusion of leadership capability.
The act of impression management is not necessarily a bad one; in fact, we strongly encourage you to thoughtfully put your best self forward when interacting with the decision-makers of your organization. But instead of just talking the talk, take it one step further and actually perform the behaviors that you’re modeling. This allows you to make a strong impression and actually live up to those high standards that you’ve established.Read More: A 5 Step Process to Hiring Better Leaders
It’s always exasperating to work for people who aren’t a good fit for their role. But these people aren’t villains, they just mastered a few key strategies (and likely didn’t have a clear understanding of their own limitations). By learning from your boss’s tricks, you can learn to highlight the good while still working on your development areas so that the next promotion is given to someone who really deserves it. Just don’t use your new powers for evil, please.
You can also hone your leadership skills by practicing our weekly leadership tips.
Want to learn more about what great leaders do differently? We looked at the correlations between assessments scores, job outcomes, and leader behavior to answer this question and outlined it in the free whitepaper below, Great Leaders: What They Do Differently.