Q: My introverted, insecure, my-way-or-the-highway supervisor has an abnormally low threshold for anything resembling a suggestion. Though I have both technical and managerial skills and could be a wonderful resource for her, I'm a no-BS kind of person who speaks his mind and what I say invariably rubs her the wrong way, even and especially when it's right.
When I first started in her department, I tried to get her to see the ways in which I could support her, but I seem to threaten her, particularly after she found out I'd been a manager in a prior company. As a result, she does her best to marginalize me. I don't particularly want to give up my job as I like everything about it and my company – except her. Unfortunately, she has great technical skills and not only is this how she got her position as department head, but it gives her considerable clout with our company's upper management. In other words, she can substantially damage my ability to move up and my career. In the last year, my morale and confidence have gone into the toilet.
How come companies promote technically-skilled, crappy leaders? How do you handle an insecure supervisor who controls your future?
A: According to Gallup's State of the American Manager survey of 2.5 million manager-led teams in 195 countries, only 18 percent of managers have a "high degree" of talent for managing employees. You've named one reason. Companies often promote people into leadership positions because of their technical strengths and not their leadership savvy.
When technical strength is the sole basis for promotion, newly promoted leaders often feel insecure, knowing they're ill-equipped to handle employees. They have, however, the managerial title and the power to shut down employees. Some even consider the ability to exercise this power to be one of the unadvertised perks their managerial promotion secured for them.
Further, technical leaders often believe solving technical challenges to be their highest-value work. In contrast, they consider managing and motivating their employees to be of low value — and something that should come easily. When it doesn't and employees "give them lip," their frustration builds and they can take it out on their employees, particularly those who hold up a critical mirror that points out their deficiencies.
Although working for an insecure supervisor isn't your fault, it is your problem. If you want to survive unscathed, you have to handle things differently.
First, don't let your dismissive supervisor demoralize you. Her views don't accurately reflect your talent and skills and you need to remind yourself that you have value regardless of whether she appreciates it.
Second, don't let "no-BS" become a justification for negative, judgmental comments. You can combine honesty and diplomacy if you learn to speak in terms of improvements rather than criticisms. When you need to challenge your supervisor, do it in a positive manner and not one that questions her authority. Don't challenge her in others' presence. Give your supervisor respect even if she doesn't deserve it, because your respect reflects on you as much as it does on her.
When you work for an insecure supervisor, you may feel frustrated daily. Find productive ways to manage your frustration and don't let yourself become passive-aggressive. Don't let yourself voice frustrations, negative thoughts or critical assessments of your supervisor to or with others. If you do, what you say invariably comes back full-circle into your supervisor's ears and bites you. If others voice negative comments, redirect the conversation or tell them you're not comfortable with bad-mouthing your supervisor as you have to work with her.
Instead, find a creative way of letting your senior management gain a true picture of your supervisor's deficiencies. For example, you might suggest that they conduct 360-degree reviews on all department managers. A 360-review provides employees a confidential forum for voicing their views about their supervisors.
Finally, while your supervisor impacts your career at your current company, if you leave, you escape her reign. Are you sure it's in your best interest to stay in your current job and company?