Help! My boss doesn’t have a clue! That was the call I answered in my last post, sharing advice and strategies for managing your boss when they can’t figure out how to manage you.

That post focused on a situation where you, alone, are managing up. And while I’m all for accountability and self-reliance, you probably don’t have to go it alone if you’ve got a useless boss. You’ve got team members who are just as disillusioned and eager for things to change as you are. So, let’s talk about how you and your colleagues can manage up as a united front.

How to Manage Your Boss

Before you think I’m advocating insurrection, it’s worth taking a moment for you and me to agree that what I’m advocating is not insubordination, manipulation, or usurpation. Instead, everything I will share is intended to help your boss achieve their needs and the requirements of the organization. You’re compensating for your boss’ shortcomings, not taking advantage of them. Ok, with that public service announcement out of the way, vamos!

Create a Team Forum

If you’re going to manage up, your team will need a forum to talk candidly with one another and to coordinate your approach. This could be an in-person discussion, a Zoom call, or a Slack channel. (And before you tell me there’s no chance you’d have these discussions anywhere they could be exposed, let me remind you of the above point. This isn’t sabotage or insubordination. If someone “catches” you and your teammates getting aligned about who’s been asked to do what, you say, “yes, we’re just trying to make sure we know what’s doing what.”

Decide What You Know and Don’t Know

Use your team forum to keep an up-to-date tally of what you know and don’t know. Your unreliable boss may have actually communicated something to one team member from which you can all benefit. This is the time to find that out. It’s also the opportunity to discuss what your boss has left unsaid or ambiguous.

For anything you know, decide who’s acting on the information. For anything you suspect but aren’t sure of, assign someone to ask the clarifying questions. Finally, for anything you’re in the dark on, align on how you’ll broach the subject with your manager.

Focus on What, Why, Who, and When

The essential information you need from your manager is answers to the what, why, who, and when questions. What you don’t want your boss answering is the how questions. One of the reasons you might need to manage up is because your manager answers none of the what and why questions and too many of the how.

You can influence your boss’ input by framing great questions that focus their attention on the highest value. Try these:

  1. What needs to be included to make this report complete?
  2. What’s the importance of the pilot phase?
  3. Who are the stakeholders we should consider in the revised design?
  4. When do you want to share our thoughts with the team in marketing?

You’ll notice that question #2 answers a ‘why’ question without framing it as a why question. That’s because questions that start with the word why are seldom a good idea and definitely not advised with a boss who might get defensive.

Take Turns

One of the best things about managing up as a team is that you don’t need to bear the brunt of your manager’s ineptitude every time. Taking turns allows you to share the load. It also lets you see if one person’s strategy is more effective than others so you can adapt and learn how to manage up more effectively over time. And if your inept boss gets frustrated that you’re forcing the issue, at least their ire gets spread around.

You can use your team forum to agree on whose turn it is, or you make the lateral pass in the moment when one of you isn’t getting a good reaction from Blundering Boss.

Meeting After the Meeting

While “the meeting after the meeting” is often a sign of team dysfunction, indecisiveness, or passive-aggressive issues, when you’re trying to function as a united front in the face of an incompetent manager, it’s a necessary coping strategy. The meeting after the meeting is a great way to divide up shared accountabilities, divvy out the workload, and align around expectations. Sure, those are things that your manager should have done in the meeting, but woulda’, coulda’, shoulda’.

Changes in Direction

If your manager decides to change tack in the middle of a project, circle the wagons and make sure all your colleagues 1) got the same instructions and 2) are responding in a way that’s well orchestrated. This might even be a situation where the boss is getting cold feet or having second thoughts, and your team might want to advocate to stay the course. This is a useful form of managing your manager. In this case, being a united front will be helpful.

What Not to Do

Let’s go back to the idea we discussed at the outset—managing up is about getting something you need and deserve that allows you to do what’s required. It’s the high road, not the low road.

With that in mind, these are things NOT to do with your team in response to a terrible boss.

Gossip and Complain

Pissing and moaning about your crappy boss won’t improve things, and it doesn’t pass the “don’t care if someone overhears” test. What IS ok, and even helpful, is to have a safe place to vent. What’s the difference? Venting is letting off your own steam. It’s talking about how the boss’ behavior is impacting you. So, “I can’t believe you got different instructions than me, and now we’re both re-doing the whole report!!” Gossiping would be, “Can you believe what an incompetent a$$ our boss is?”

Defy Your Manager’s Wishes

Another no-no is intentionally ignoring your boss’ explicit instructions or even their implicit wishes with your version of a better idea. Managing up is using influence to mold your boss’ plans. You’re not allowed to just make your own. That means you involve the finance team if that’s what your boss wants, even if you believe that will slow things down or create unnecessary headaches. Sure, you can take a stab at questioning that decision by pointing out the risks to your boss, but once you’ve shot your bolt, what the boss said, goes.

Go Above Your Boss’ Head

The last verboten approach to deal with an ineffectual manager is to pull rank and go above them to get what you want. I know it’s tempting, but it will put your manager in a very awkward position, and an uncomfortable or defensive boss will not improve your life. Instead of cutting your boss out of the conversations with higher-ups, find opportunities to have conversations with your boss and their boss simultaneously. That’s where it’s ok to ask questions your boss hasn’t answered: “We were just talking about where this project fits in. I’d love your perspective on that.”

There are too many managers out there who, for one reason or another, don’t provide you with the direction and support you need. Some are too green to know what’s required; others are overwhelmed, timid, or stuck in the weeds. But, regardless of the reason for your boss’ lack of value, there is hope to be found in working with your colleagues to cobble together what you need.

Additional Resources

How to handle a toxic boss

10 Tips to Prevent Misalignment from Destroying Trust

How to handle the Flip-Flopping Boss

From HBR: How to Tell the Difference Between Venting and Office Gossip