What To Do About Mediocre Leadership

boss with bullhorn

As part of our 100th post celebration we asked readers to tell us what was on their minds. One reader sent us an email that included this question: How do you work for an organization you love, with a mission you believe in, and cope with the horrible struggle of poor management behind the scenes? First, let’s acknowledge up front that there are often times in our lives when we don’t want to or can’t get a new job. If you are the trailing spouse or partner, if you have family ties that will be exacerbated by moving, or if you’ve only just begun a job and discover it isn’t the bowl of cherries you thought it would be, you may find yourself stuck when, in other circumstances, you would apply for a new job immediately.

So…what do you do? You’re doing work you like in a field you adore for a person whose idea of great is your idea of mediocre. Or worse, you work for a person who can’t get out of her own way, and who manages to make things worse not better. First, some coping strategies: These types of leaders can’t be depended on for much except confusion and mismanagement. As a result, don’t be rude, but try to avoid hallway conversations or spontaneous chats. You aren’t going to get the support you need and you will likely leave more confused than when you began. Poor leaders often don’t think strategically. That means you need to do the heavy lifting. Make sure your meetings are scheduled ahead of time. Make lists, and use them to guide conversation. Take notes during the meeting. Once it’s over, email a thank you and follow up with “This is my take-away.” That way, your job/role/project is down in black and white. Should anything go wrong or there’s any kind of misunderstanding, you’ve left the door open for your director to comment.

Second, make sure you have a mentor/advisor. This can be someone internal or better yet someone external. Remember, mentors aren’t therapists; they are there to help you navigate work and career situations. Don’t personalize or demonize your bad leader–that’s for drinks with your friends. Use time with your mentor to sort out your own communication style. Perhaps the way you ask questions is too oblique and you need to be more direct. Perhaps you are waiting for acknowledgement of your excellent work from someone who doesn’t recognize excellence, her own or anyone else’s. Perhaps you need to let go of things that aren’t your responsibility; in other words, play your position.

Once, when I launched into a rant about a co-worker, a very wise director looked at me and said, “People don’t change.” I sputtered to a halt. Of course people could change, and besides it’s for the sake of the organization. Why wouldn’t they want to moderate their behavior? Her answer: most of the time they don’t and they can’t. If you’re going to be good at the non-content part of your job, then you need to be adaptable, someone who can size up staff no matter where they are on the food chain and get along.

Last, here are some suggestions about how to make the external part of working for Mr. or Ms. Mediocre better.

  • Don’t be the servant employee. Be a bit more self-centered. Think about your job as a resume builder. What can the job offer you–training, travel, mentoring–that makes you a better you.
  • If you work in development, communications, HR or any field museums share with other non-profits, are there job opportunities that build your skill set away from the field, but allow you to stay in your community, city, town?
  • Read last week’s post on More Than a Mentor and make sure you have a posse.
  • Consider taking on an outside project as a consultant or a volunteer. Again, be strategic. What will it do for you? Allow you to work with folks you admire? Be a resume builder? Earn some extra money to fund either a vacation (re-charging in these situations is important) or professional development that your institution might not pay for.
  • Look for opportunities and take them. Is it your turn to schmooze trustees through your department? Don’t avoid it because the trustees hired the incompetent leader in the first place. Meet them and sell your own piece of the pie.
  • Finally, as we said last week, always check-in with yourself. Only you can know how sad, angry or tortured a job is making you. If it’s making you sick, step aside. You’re smart, well educated. There are other jobs in other fields. This may be the universe telling you to press pause on the museum field, so listen.

Are you working for the stress-you-out director? How do you cope?

Joan Baldwin

 

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3 Comments on “What To Do About Mediocre Leadership”

  1. Karen W. says:

    Thank you so much for this posting. I found it extremely helpful. I cope with my situation by remembering why I am there–I love the work I do, I like many members of our Friends group, I love the history of the site, I love the site–it is gorgeous, and, most importantly, I am doing it so I can be an engaged mom with my daughters. Sometimes this isn’t enough and I get really angry, depressed, and frustrated. Everything but the management and salary/benefit situation is a good fit for me. No job is perfect.

  2. rjsmith2 says:

    I’ve come to the same realization you touched on; if I’m unwilling or unable to move on to another job, I need to try to get along. For me, that means trying to avoid conversation with the Director whenever possible, and learning to come up with my own solutions. I have to be able and willing to still do my job well (because it’s the right thing to do), even when faced with discouraging and dismal management, and a lack of recognition for employees’ efforts.

  3. Michael says:

    Great article and tips. The tips about a mentor and posse is spot on! My boss is one of these people. The person twists conversations, knows little about the field but pretends they do, pits coworkers against one another and the list goes on. Unfortunately, there is no avoiding the person. What I found difficult is to avoid your posse trash talking the person. Once that starts, you yourself become soured and it is hard to stay positive. After a year, I have decided to leave because my love for my job has left me and now I groan coming to work.


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