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Strategies for when you are smarter than your boss

What should you do when you are smarter than your boss? Here are some strategies to help you find success despite managerial setbacks.
From Team '23

Tempo Team

In a perfect world, your manager would do more than oversee your day-to-day activities. They would also be a teacher and mentor, guiding you as you grow into your role and beyond. Ideally, your superior would be someone you can look up to as an example of professional excellence. 

But life doesn’t always work out that way – especially when you are smarter than your boss. 

Knowing more than your boss doesn’t mean they’re incompetent. They got their leadership position for a reason. Hopefully, it’s a good one, and you’ll motivate each other to grow. If not, all isn’t lost. Despite your boss’ shortcomings, you can still succeed and climb the corporate ladder.

Is your boss really the problem?

In any workplace, you’ll find people who know more and less than you, including your boss. That doesn’t mean they’re smarter or dumber, just more or less skilled and experienced – something easily rectified.

To succeed in a team environment, put aside your ego and find the unique strengths you and your colleagues can contribute to the group’s success. Then, leverage those qualities to deliver the best results according to the group’s collective capabilities. At the end of the day, no one gives you a gold star just for being smart; they care about your contributions to the team’s overall success.

Your direct manager is also a team member, and they deserve the same consideration as your peers. So, take a moment and identify their qualifications.

Maybe they’re new to the role and lack your technical knowledge, but they have the leadership and management skills to keep the team on track. Although they may be inexperienced, they’re a superior problem solver, able to quickly evaluate all options to settle on the best choice. They may also possess the people skills to cut through red tape and secure project buy-in and funding. 

Smart people know that everyone they meet has something to teach, including a boss who appears less knowledgeable. So give your seemingly inept manager a chance to show you what they’ve got. You may be surprised.

5 tips for when you are smarter than your boss

If, despite giving them the benefit of the doubt, your boss is genuinely incompetent and unwilling to learn from you, then you’re facing a hard choice: stay or go? There’s no wrong answer to that question, only what’s best for you. If you feel your manager is holding you back or is actively undermining you, perhaps it’s in your best interest to leave. Toxic cultures affect 20% of workers, leading to stress, burnout, and mental health challenges. No job is worth that.

If you decide to stay despite the challenges or need help getting through until you find a new position, here are a few tips to manage the situation:

1. Avoid toxic positivity

People will tell you to find the silver lining in this situation. That’s not bad advice, but you don’t have to be happy about a job that isn’t doing you any favors. You can express genuine disappointment at a boss or a role that doesn’t meet your expectations. Sure, you’re making the best of the situation, but you’re also mourning a lost opportunity.

Recognize the reality of your situation and make peace with it. Then, channel your energy into giving your team your best or getting hired at a better job. It’s your choice. 

2. Share feelings with your support system

Everybody needs to vent, so find supportive friends who will help you feel more optimistic about the situation and offer actionable advice. Ideally, these will be people outside of work, but trusted colleagues can also be helpful – so long as they’re not prone to workplace gossip. Teammates can provide suggestions for dealing with your boss based on prior experience or offer an outlet to keep yourself sane at work. 

3. Disagree with your boss when needed

You can make the best of a bad situation without becoming a doormat. In a healthy corporate environment, everyone is encouraged to question and challenge decisions, provided they remain respectful and professional. 

Diplomacy is the key to disagreeing with your boss. Instead of calling out your manager in front of the team, be curious. Ask them to explain the rationale behind their decision and whether they considered the factor you’re concerned with. Keep asking why until you’re satisfied or uncover the root of their decision. They may simply see the problem differently than you. If you’re still convinced it’s the wrong move once you have the whole picture, that’s when you challenge the choice using data and evidence.  

If your boss doesn’t appreciate your input, you should re-evaluate your decision to stay on or broach the subject with HR or another leader. 

4. Help when you can

Generally, if the boss succeeds, so does the team. If your direct manager is struggling with something, offer to help. You have nothing to lose by managing up.

If they accept, you have an opportunity to improve the working situation for everyone in the group. Using this approach, you’ll likely find ways your skills complement each other and compensate for any gaps your leader has in expertise or technical skill. 

As you regularly lend a hand and make your boss look good, you become invaluable. Ensure you receive credit, and you’ll gain leverage to get ahead. 

5. Focus on doing a good job

The last thing you want to do is waste time complaining about your boss’ poor performance. Instead, use your intelligence to make your mark by helping your group deliver above expectations, innovating improvements, and problem-solving team challenges. You’ll develop social capital among your coworkers, becoming an invaluable team player upon whom colleagues and the company can depend, serving you well in any future role.

What you shouldn’t do

You should never exhibit unprofessional behaviors at work, no matter how frustrated you feel. The following actions could harm your reputation within the organization and leave you job hunting sooner than you’d like. 

Don’t publicly undermine your boss

Although tempting, never allow your direct manager to fail if you can prevent it. Your lack of action hurts your boss, undermines the company’s goals, and damages your team’s confidence in you. Everyone is affected. Upper management and your colleagues will remember your choice, making it hard to trust you again.

Instead, take the long view and try to help everyone succeed. 

Don’t resist instructions or directives

If your manager gives you a direct order to do something a certain way, despite your reasonable objections, agree and do the task to the best of your abilities while following their methodology. If the results are underwhelming, that’s when you suggest altering the process. Document your objections and recommendations in case anyone questions why you fulfilled the job the way you did. 

Don’t cover

There’s a difference between delivering on expectations and covering for your boss. It doesn’t help anyone to keep cleaning up after their mistakes. Do your best, but if your boss’s actions are so egregious as to cause an initiative to fail, they should suffer the consequences. Just be sure to cover your… well, you know. 

Avoid gossip

No one appreciates being talked about behind their back, including your boss. Keep all discussions professional, even with your most trusted coworkers. 

Final words

Being more qualified than your boss isn’t the end of the world. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses; that’s why you’re a team.

Your manager should nurture your abilities, not feel threatened by your intelligence. If they are, it’s up to you to ensure your worth is recognized. Show everyone your capabilities, and let the chips fall where they may. If your boss doesn’t come around, it might be time to find a new job where a more competent boss appreciates your abilities. 

If your boss needs help with organization, try Tempo Strategic Roadmaps. Strategic Roadmaps promotes organizational alignment by helping managers track dependencies, communicate upcoming work, and present timelines through a single, accessible point of contact. Tempo Timesheets and Financial Manager can help manage expenses, billable hours, and operating income to give your team a holistic view of project budgets and business finances.