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How to work for an idiot

September 13, 2005 09:34 IST

Idiot bosses exist only to stomp the life out of their intellectually superior and more innovative subordinates.

This keeps many good workers up at night. Some can't figure out why their ideas are rejected and their work is denigrated. Others sink into cynicism about their careers. A few devote all their energy to plotting revenge against the dummy in the corner office.

Instead, use a little jujitsu: Turn your boss's cluelessness to your advantage. Call it idiot engineering.

"A clueless boss gives you a wide-open field," says John Hoover, author of How to Work for an Idiot: Survive & Thrive -- Without Killing Your Boss. "Learn what's important to your boss, understand what your company is looking for and help the fool meet those expectations."

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Some workers, fed up by the knuckle-dragging incompetence of the idiot boss, spend a good part of the day making the twit look bad. The shrewd employee works around the idiot boss by becoming a boost to the ninny's career -- not an impediment.

"You want to diminish the power of the boss's cluelessness to harm you," says Hoover, a corporate psychologist who holds a PhD in organisational behavior. "You do that by becoming an enhancement to the boss."

Start by paying attention to what interests the bumbler and listen carefully when the schmo grunts. This will provide vital information in planning your winning assault on idiocy.

Can't we all just get along?

If your boss has a hockey stick in the corner, uses a puck for a paperweight and has the jersey of his favorite player mounted on the wall, you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that he's a hockey nut.

Rather than laying out your proposal in detailed and complex language peppered with chatter about the "leading edge" and "getting the lion's share of resources," try this:

"Wasn't it Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky who said you shouldn't skate to where the puck is but to where the puck will be?"

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A true idiot will miss the metaphor. Relax, you're talking hockey, and your favorite jackass will listen. If you make your presentation in hockey-speak, chances are the boss will love your idea -- even if he doesn't understand it -- and will give you the go-ahead.

That's your opening, and, as a non-idiot, the rest is up to you.

Some may see efforts to handle an idiot boss as butt kissing, but anyone who thinks that probably believes the road to advancement starts by making the boss look stupid.

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"Idiot engineering isn't butt kissing," Hoover says. "The whole idea is to make working conditions more conducive to your career growth."

Remember: The key to overcoming an idiot boss includes blending your ideas with the nincompoop's language and agenda. If the schmuck adopts your ideas as his own, you've hopped the first hurtle to success.

"Even though idiot bosses are inevitable, they don't have to be terminal," Hoover says.

But no matter how successful your idiot engineering efforts are, remember who's the boss.

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"The person with the institutional authority is always the 800-pound gorilla," says Hoover. "People who go to work thinking they'll out-wrestle the big monkey will lose every time."

A clueless boss isn't necessarily unconscious, and most know they're in over their heads. This creates great insecurity. As a result, the idiot boss spends most of his day defending his turf against all threats rather than advancing the interests of the company. The idiot boss's imperative is clear: prevent others from seeing his near-terminal cluelessness.

The turbo-charged jerk in pinstripes is more than happy to slaughter a sacrificial lamb on the altar of his own incompetence. You can avoid being that innocent lamb by making yourself indispensable to the big goof.

The rare non-idiot boss does a genius thing: talk to employees, ask about their job and how it can be done better. Jack Welch, former head of General Electric, nailed it. Clearly, someone knows which end is up at top-notch companies such as Microsoft, Intel, Dell, Apple Computer, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways.

"I'm a recovering idiot boss," Hoover says. "If I stop talking to my people, I'm dangling precariously. I've got to engage them and learn from their skills. If I do that, I've taken my personality out of the equation, and that creates consistency."

However, if your boss is dumber than a fence post and beyond redemption, it may be time to find another job. Hoover says an inability to get along with the boss is cited as the top reason for changing jobs. Then comes job dissatisfaction, followed by inadequate pay.

"In a free market, we can vote with our feet," Hoover says. "Leaving may have consequences -- pay and location, for example -- so do a cost/benefit analysis before giving notice."

The battle against idiocy is a long, twilight struggle. As you gird for battle, take a hard look at yourself.

"Beware your inner idiot," Hoover says. "Success and stupidity don't mix. Your boss's stupidity is only half the problem. Your own stupidity can easily complete the disaster."

Scott Reeves, Forbes