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How to Handle a Clueless Boss

How to Handle a Clueless BossI'll never forget that meeting in the CEO's private conference room. My director of employee communications said, "The employees just don't get your vision. They have no idea what it means to them or how it affects what they do five days a week." She then rattled off some rather unflattering survey data.

I remember thinking, she's a brave one. She didn't last long.

This was a first for me. The companies I'd previously worked for didn't have that kind of data. They didn't have an entire group devoted to employee communications, either. But this was a Fortune 1000 company with 12,000 employees, worldwide. And I was the new VP of corporate marketing and communications, courtesy of a recent merger.

Come to think of it, I didn't last very long, either.

Now, I can't say that was my first bout with a CEO who was clueless about what folks really thought of his brilliant strategy. It was, however, the first time I spent months developing and implementing a program with the sole purpose of making a CEO's vision tangible for thousands of employees.

But hey, that's what happens when a big honcho sits in his ivory tower and throws his big ideas down at employees like Zeus firing lightning bolts down at terrified mortals from high on Mount Olympus. Scary stuff, I know. What's even scarier is how common it is.

How common is it? Good question. Actually I would frame it as two questions:

  1. Are most leaders - business or political - essentially clueless about what their employees or constituents think of them and their ideas?
  2. If you're one of those poor people who think the emperor (or executive) has no clothes, what do you do? Shout it out, like the kid in the story?
To address the first question, no, I don't think that most leaders - or managers, for that matter - are clueless. But I do think far too many are. For example:
  • According to a recent research report conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, C-level executives had a consistently "rose-tinted" view of employee engagement. For example, 20% of C-level executives said their employees are "much more engaged" than those in rival firms, while only 7% of the next management level down thought that was the case. I can only imagine what the "rank and file" thought.
  • These days, employee engagement is a very big deal, especially at large companies. But I'm not sure if it really helps to bridge that gap from the tower to the troops. I'm always skeptical of big, expensive programs pushed by big consulting and survey firms. Unless executive management is willing to follow through and really do something with the data, it's all just lip service.
  • I've worked with all kinds of CEOs at companies big and small. And I've noticed an odd but relatively consistent phenomenon. While most execs at small-to-mid-sized firms do a pretty good job of getting around and chatting with the troops, rarely does it change their strategy or behavior. In other words, they speak, probably listen, but don't really hear ... or don't want to hear.
  • Did you happen to hear any part of former Egyptian president Mubarak's speech last Thursday? He gave this whole sermon like a father to his children. He spoke of punishing those who committed crimes against his people. Wow. The guy was a dictator, for heaven's sake. The people despised him. Could anyone have been more clueless?
As for the second question, employees often agonize over whether they should tell their clueless boss or management what they really think for fear of being labeled a troublemaker or worse. That's indeed a valid concern. Here's my advice on whether you should "speak up," broken down into three distinct categories:

How to Handle a Clueless Boss

  • If you're an individual contributor or a line/middle manager and you're pretty sure that nobody above you gives a crap what you think, then suck it up until you can find a better company to work for. Otherwise, in all likelihood, it'll end badly for you. Still, if you're fed up, better read How to Deal With a Bad Boss: Don't! before you do anything drastic.
  • If, on the other hand, you think management does care about what you think, then speak up. If your direct boss is the clueless one, you should probably give him a heads up first. Who knows, you may have it wrong. Yes, I know that's risky, but it's the right thing to do. If you think that's a waste of time and you've got your ducks in a row, then go over his head. But be savvy, diplomatic, and know that you might get canned for your effort.
  • If you're a senior manager or executive, there is absolutely no excuse for not telling your boss - the CEO, VP, whatever - what you think. That's what they pay you for. Yes, of course, you need to use all the brains God gave you and be tactful about it. But if you're more concerned with your own butt than doing what's right for the company, you don't deserve what they pay you. There's no place for yes-men (or women) in management. So grow a pair and do your job.
That's how I think you should handle a clueless boss. What do you think?
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