It’s the dilemma that many people will face at some point in their career. It goes something like this.
You: ‘I have a proposal that will earn the company more money, be easily explainable to and implementable by our employees, and provide an obvious rationale for clients as to why our services/products cost this amount.’
Your boss: ‘No.’
Sometimes there are other reasons for that ‘no’ but far more often than it should be the reason is simply that yes, you are smarter than your boss. You know it’s true. You know it because you’ve experienced it. In your own boss or someone else’s.
Unfortunately, the truth is it is very rare that the boss who says no so emphatically the first time will be convinced to change their mind subsequently. Bosses get to be bosses because they are paid to make the hard decisions (even if they are the wrong decisions) and are good at convincing those in power that they should be there (even when just a little common sense might suggest otherwise). And no little upstart who was still in nappies while he or she was doing something in Vietnam (or Iraq or the Global Financial Crisis or whatever the equivalent is these days) is going to tell him or her how to run his or her business. No matter how much profit he or she has to forgo.
We’d like to think that everyone who has the experience of being smarter than their boss would come away from it telling themselves they’ll never be that kind of manager. Unfortunately, it isn’t always true. Some bosses, upon their advancement, are sent straight to the ‘treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen’ school of management, which operates on slogans like ‘Greed is good’ and pumps out psychopath after psychopath. There seems to be an endless supply.
So there are three options. One, you can put up with it. It’s the option chosen by many, at least in the short term. You get the satisfaction of watching your boss fail to meet department targets, thin the profit margin and try to explain away an inexplicably high employee turnover. Long term, it takes a larger toll on you. By then you might be ready to take the next option.
Two, you can call your boss out. To achieve this, you’ll need:
- To be sure that you’re right
- A calm, diplomatic demeanour
- Witnesses (preferably including someone with authority over your boss)
- Courage, courage, courage
It’s rare because if you don’t succeed, your boss will now consciously devote time to making your working life miserable, even more than just stupidity can be responsible for. We’re talking deliberate, malicious and humiliating. That’s if you haven’t already been fired.
Or three, you can move on to bigger and/or better things. Sometimes it’s worth it to find a boss who is either a) smarter than you or b) not smarter than you but willing to make it an advantage for everyone. Sometimes it’s worth it so you’re not spending all your disposable income on alcohol and copious amounts of time banging your head against a wall, both literally and figuratively. And sometimes it’s worth it because the next step is the big one, the one you’ve been waiting for, the holy grail – the job and the employer you’ve always wanted.
Alexandra# works in the financial services industry. She had been slowly but studiously working her way up when the smaller company she was employed at was taken over by a larger one. She was put in charge of merging the processes and procedures of both her department and the corresponding department in the larger company. She thought it could be the next step up she was looking for.
Instead, after the project was complete, she was offered the same job she had been doing before – in the now merged department that wouldn’t be up and running without her hard work – at half her previous salary.
‘There was no one else internally who could have managed the project that I was given, not even the managers. Especially not the managers.’ Yes, she was smarter than her boss (bosses, in this context) – but her thanks was to be managed out the door because the bosses saw in her what no boss ever wants to see: their obvious and not-too-distantly-in-the-future replacement. ‘Unsurprisingly, I declined their offer.’
Alexandra took six months to think about where her career was headed and the long line of people queueing up to be yet another boss she was smarter than and instead decided to become the boss herself. She set up a small business in direct competition with the two larger ones that had recently merged and deliberately set about hiring employees smarter than she was. Not so she could treat them badly and dismiss their clever ideas but, in fact, just the opposite.
Over three hundred clients of Alexandra’s former employer tracked her down in her new business to become her clients instead. She paid off her substantial home loan in three years because she was earning ten times what she’d been offered by her former employer. She and her employees work hard when they need to and she sends her team home early when they don’t need to. And most importantly, she listens to her workers, implements good ideas they have and gives them all credit they are due.
‘I didn’t get mad. I didn’t get even. I just went out and got the career I deserved.’
Brittany# is a self-taught IT professional. In her mid-twenties, she was sure her future was in IT but a string of non-IT jobs littered her CV. When she finally landed a role at a mid-sized services company, she thought this could be the beginning of the career she had always hoped for.
‘I’d like to think that I’m just unlucky – I always seem to attract nut jobs in both my personal and professional lives – but I managed to have two bosses I was smarter than in quick succession.’
The first was an aggressive manipulator, subjecting her to bullying and sexual harassment, and taking credit for the hard work of everyone in the team, including Brittany. ‘He was sacked when the company realised – thanks to a couple of invoices I was asked to look into – he had been illegitimately using company resources, spending pretty much every working hour running another business on the side and fooling management into thinking he knew everything there was to know about IT. He didn’t.’
The second was a passive manipulator. ‘He knew less about IT than the previous manager but he’d worked at the company for a long time in a different department and management trusted his record of achievement. He acknowledged his deficiencies and I became the de facto manager. I developed projects and implemented time lines. I managed the budgets, some legal issues and sometimes even other staff.’
She was nearly three years into her role with the company when Brittany was offered the chance to spend a month working in India for a not-for-profit with all expenses paid. ‘It was the recognition of my hard work I’d been looking for, as well as a chance to give back.’ She was thrilled. But her boss wasn’t impressed. ‘Because it meant I would have to take a month’s leave. And if I was away for a month it would quickly become obvious that he wasn’t able to do the job he had been put in place to do.’
She was offered two weeks of leave and two weeks to make her decision. ‘I spent those two weeks finding a new job, one that was closer to home and paid more, with an employer rapt with the opportunity I had been offered. They were more than happy for me to take the leave.’ Less than a month later, she was settling into her new, better job. She was promoted within twelve months and is now managing significant projects and being recognised for it.
So what are you going to do about it?
It’s one thing to recognise that you are smarter than your boss but it’s another to do something about it. But you never know how far and how high you can go without someone else’s stupidity holding you back.
For those of you reading this and thinking, ‘I’m not smarter than my boss,’ ask yourself this question: Will that always be the case? And what happens when you finally are?
And for those bosses reading this and thinking, ‘That’s not me,’ ask yourself this question: Are you sure? And would your employees agree?
#Names changed to protect those smarter than their bosses
*First published on LinkedIn 29 July 2014