What to do when your manager is an idiot

“So what do you do when your manager is an idiot?”

If I had a pint for every nurse I met who felt their boss was an incompetent idiot, I would spend nearly all my waking hours staggering around in a drunken haze. I would go even further and say that most of the nurse entrepreneurs I meet would not be looking to leave their current organisation if they had a creative, supportive and empowering manager.

So what do you do when your manager is an idiot?

Well a couple of suggestions and approaches might help make your job and your life more bearable. If you find yourself thinking about your manager a lot when you are away from work and talking about them a lot with friends and family, then this is a sign that they are having a very unhealthy impact on your life and you need to do something about this. Either that or you have a crush on them and that is an entirely different blog :)

Firstly a word of caution. Acting like you know they are an idiot (no matter how tempting) will only make things worse. If you antagonise, embarrass or annoy your manager they can easily transform from being an idiot to a bully and the bane of your life.

So where do you start?

The easiest route is if you can turn them from being an idiot into an ally. Do you understand why they act the way they do? What are their priorities? What are their problems? What would make THEIR life easier? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, then find out. Nurses are highly skilled in verbal and non-verbal communication and in making complex assessments – use these skills on your boss. Find out what drives them, what their priorities are, what their hopes and aspirations are and what they really care about. Very few people ever spend much time analysing situations from the world-view of others and it can be a very rewarding and transforming experience.

So let’s assume that you’ve worked this out. How do you use this information to improve your life (which is the purpose of the exercise)? What you need to do is to reframe what you want in terms of what they want. Do they want shorter waiting times, reduced sickness and absence, cost savings, more recognition from their manager or peers, better clinical outcomes, service redesign, etc? Once you know what THEY want, then you can present your ideas and your changes in terms that meet THEIR needs. So (for example) if you want an additional nursing post, you have to come up with a way of selling that as a way of meeting what they want and solving their problems (e.g. will this new post improve documentation, reduce complaints, help implement a new care pathway, reduce spend on agency staff, etc). It is like a move in the martial art of judo, where you use their energy and their momentum to move them where you want them to go.

So what if that doesn’t work?

There are a few things that you can do which will definitely make the situation worse. The worst culprit of all is complaining about your manager to anyone who will listen. Not only does this make you look very unprofessional but your manager will have friends and allies all around you, particularly people who see their future career success as something your manager can help them with. Very quickly your manager will find out what you are saying and then the relationship is likely to deteriorate very badly very quickly.

What if your manager just enjoys dominating others?

There are people out there who just enjoying dominating others, whether this is about their own insecurities, their personal ambition or this is the approach they learned from their early role models. If you have a dominating manager there are no easy solutions. One solution is to give in on some things and consider them as insignificant as it will become personally draining to fight them on every front. If they insist on small issues are done in a certain way then sometimes it is easier to just go along with it and do what they want. If they want all the pillowcases facing away from the door (these Ward Sisters really do exist!) sometimes it is just easier to turn the pillowcases. However, whilst it is good to give in on small things, there are certain issues where we cannot allow ourselves to be pushed around. If your manager is encouraging you to be unpleasant to others, to treat other people badly, to ignore the needs of others and even to lie for them, then you should not feel compelled to follow. If you feel inwardly awkward about something then avoid doing it. If you simply follow all the whims and dictats of your manager, they will exploit this and the situation will only get worse, but choose the issues to argue over and if you can trade “your way” on a few important issues for “their way” on minor issues, then this may be enough for you.

What if your manager is constantly criticising?

Some people seem to have real knack for spotting every mistake and error around them, no matter how small. Some of them even seem to get a perverse pleasure in pointing out other people’s errors and mistakes and this is annoying enough in a colleague but awful if they are your manager. They even seem to get a certain sense of satisfaction from pointing it out. There are ways of coping with this though. The most important approach is not to take this as a personal criticism. If you have made a mistake at work, it doesn’t mean you are a bad nurse or a bad person, simply that you did something wrong. This could be a great learning opportunity to improve your skills and performance but only as long as you don’t react to this as a criticism of you as a person. Remember that one of the roles of your manager is to manage your performance and pointing out mistakes is a legitimate part of that activity. Some nurses react to any performance management as if it is bullying without recognising that it is a legitimate and important management function.

If your manager is pointing out all your mistakes all of the time, remember all the things you do well even if this is not mentioned or recognised by your manager. The worst thing you can do is criticise them back as you will be locked in a cycle of criticism in which you will inevitably suffer. If your manager does infrequent performance reviews (or does them in a very mechanistic way), use the opportunity to present some of the excellent work that you have done and your achievements. Even the act of thinking about your success and achievements and writing the down will make you feel more positive, irrespective of your manager’s reaction or level of interest. Whatever their motivation for constant criticism, if you can put this in the context of all the good things you are doing, depersonalise it (even if only in your own head) and learn from it, then this will reduce the impact of this criticism on your self-belief and your happiness.

So when do you openly challenge them?

Many people think that openly challenging and confronting your manager is the way forward. Sometimes, particularly when the welfare of patients or other staff are concerned, openly challenging your manager’s behaviour and decisions is the way to go. However, even if you win, this is not a slight that they will easily forgive and neither will their allies. It is rare to find a nurse who has openly challenged their manager, has won and has still stayed very long afterwards in that area. Some complain of ongoing bullying from the manager, some complain of bullying from their manager’s manager, some complain of being ostracised by many of their colleagues and some feel that they have won a battle only to lose a war. If you are going to openly challenge then you need to make sure you get plenty of good professional support (e.g. trade unions, professional bodies, legal advice, etc) and plenty of personal support (e.g. friends and family). It is also worth assuming that after you have won, you need to move to another area or organisation afterwards and you should plan your exit strategy as early as you can. It is much easier to go through this difficult process knowing that you are leaving to a better environment and you will also find job-hunting difficult in the middle of a complaint, grievance or even legal process.

Finally, it is very unlikely that you will be able to change your manager’s behaviour or their personality. If you can turn them into an ally then that will make your life easier and will help you push through the changes you want. If you can’t then you will either have to live with it (which can be a pretty miserable existence) or leave. If other people’s welfare is at stake then you may choose to openly confront and challenge your manager but you need to plan your support and our exit strategy in advance.

Whatever happens, remember that a good job is a job doing what you love, surrounded by colleagues you like and respect with a manager you respect and who supports you – having only one or two of those in place means that it isn’t a good job and there are better jobs out there for you. As Confucious one said “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life”.

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