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How Do I Deal With An Incompetent Boss?

Welcome to Survey Says, FiveThirtyEight’s advice column. In each installment, our two advice-givers will take a reader question, debate what he or she should do, and then survey a panel of people about what the best course of action is. Need our advice? Send us your quandary!

My office hired a new supervisor after a much-loved one moved to a new position at a different agency. The hiring process was highly murky — no current staff members were consulted, despite it being the agency standard — and tainted by nepotism. The new supervisor had attempted to join this department over several years, and her application had been rejected by the previous supervisor, even for minor assistant positions, due to her negative personality qualities. As you can imagine, her hiring has caused significant negative effects on morale. After a month, the new supervisor seems to be dropping the ball left and right: missing meetings, never being in the office, avoiding tasks, not understanding and performing basic job duties. I’m concerned about going to her supervisor due to the favoritism-esque aspects that were shown and because it may backfire. What can I do? — Frazzled

Walt Hickey: This one is a fun question. Sounds like things aren’t going so great over there.

Morgan Jerkins: Right. So as I was thinking about this question, my initial suggestion was for Frazzled to email the new supervisor to ask if a meeting can be set up so that they can smooth out all of this tension. But if the new supervisor is never in the office, how is that going to work?

Walt: Ha! Yeah, the thing with this mess is that if it’s truly as bad as he suggests, it’ll work itself out over a long enough time span. “Never interfere with your enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself” or whatever the Napoleon quote is. I think he’s gotta lay low and wait for this person to torpedo herself.

Morgan: Ooh, I really like that quote. But shouldn’t Frazzled keep documentation of all this negligence? Not necessarily to confront the supervisor, but to have it just in case?

Walt: Yes, but Frazzled should not let anyone know he’s doing that, as it’ll just create more problems.

Morgan: Oh, absolutely.

Walt: What are some other ways he can solve the issue, though?

The morale problem makes it sound like it’s causing an issue, and Frazzled also told us this is a high-stress environment in the health care sector. If he were to try to move this along, what’s the best path of action?

Still think it’s worth emailing the supervisor? Could be a win/win. A non-response is worth noting, and a response from the supervisor could go well.

Morgan: I’m wondering if Frazzled has any other co-workers or higher-ups that he can work with to make sure that the “train,” so to speak, keeps moving. If the morale among the entire team is already low, then it sort of backs the boss’s superior into a corner. That person has to take some kind of action.

FiveThirtyEight commissioned a SurveyMonkey Audience poll that ran April 12-13 and received 1,128 responses. We presented respondents with Frazzled’s question and asked them what the best advice is, given the situation. They were allowed to choose only one option.

  1. Do nothing. If the manager’s that bad, it’ll work itself out at some point.


  2. Email the manager’s supervisor and ask for a meeting to talk this over.


  3. Email the manager to talk about it and smooth the tension.


  4. Reach out to co-workers and try to reach a consensus on what to do.


  5. None of the above is good advice.


Walt: This was extremely divisive, it seems, with no majority winner.

18-29 30-44 45-59 60+
Do nothing 12%
Email the manager’s supervisor 27
Email the manager 16
Consult co-workers 36
None of the above 9

Numbers have been rounded and may not add up to 100 percent.

Do nothing 26%
Email the manager’s supervisor 22
Email the manager 14
Consult co-workers 25
None of the above 13

Numbers have been rounded and may not add up to 100 percent.

Walt: It seems like this is much more of a question of strategy than etiquette. One plan — let the new manager implode on her own — is favored by the folks over 45. A slightly more aggressive plan — talk to co-workers about it — is more beloved by folks under 30. And then there are the most drastic plans — email the boss or, most aggressively of all, the boss’s boss — which seemed liked a 44 years and younger kind of play.

Morgan: Right. I can see why the younger crowd would have no problem with confrontation.

Walt: Interestingly, no major divisions among genders. This is an age question.

So there are three different paths favored by three different groups. Personally, I still go with the plan to wait her out. If the 45-and-up crowd says that’s the best approach, I say experience has authority.

Morgan: Same here. I think if the person is that messy, it’ll catch up.

More of our advice:

Morgan Jerkins is a writer living in New York City.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.