How to deal with ‘mediocre’ managers

Damaris Albarran offers her tips on how to manage working relationships with ‘mediocre’ managers.

Following the publication last month of the Good Finance Framework, a set of actions that can be taken by firms to allow women to progress in financial services, there was some discussion in the media about the ‘mediocre’ management that many of those – and particularly women – working in financial services have to put up with.

The debate was sparked by a report from Women in Banking and Finance and the London School of Economics which said that careers for some women in finance are being held back by mediocre male middle managers adept at playing internal politics. The study also found that women in finance perceived that they had to show sustained excellence to progress, with more room for men to make mistakes or be average performers.

Developing talent

The Good Finance Framework suggests various measures that a company can take to counter this, ensuring that they avoid mediocre management and instead retain and develop their most talented employees, including women.

The measures include auditing meetings for ‘groupthink’, auditing the allocation of stretch assignments, pay increases and promotions, and also taking an ‘experimental’ approach to defining flexible work.

However, while an encouraging number of firms have signed up to the plan there can be no doubt that its implementation will take time. So if you work in financial services and suffer from these problems, what can you realistically do while waiting for improvements to happen?

Feeling threatened

What exactly is a mediocre manager? Well, for a start they are likely to be male and also likely to be someone less well educated and with fewer qualifications for the job than you. So they may feel threatened by the younger and probably more cosmopolitan cohort of people now working for them.

Given this imbalance it’s essential you manage your relationship with your manager as carefully and diplomatically as you would if they were a client of your firm. After all, they are arguably your most important customer. In my view there are five key things that you need to do.

First, it’s helpful to recognise that a mediocre manager needs your skills and knowledge and this means that working for them may give you opportunities to do things you might otherwise not get the chance to do. Try to identify and seize these, and help them do and achieve things they couldn’t do without you. This will give you valuable experience and may even make you indispensable, though you may have to accept at this stage that they will take most (or all) of the credit for what you have achieved.

Second, you can help them be a better manager while helping yourself in the process too. At the end of the day it’s unlikely they want to be a bad manager, so take the initiative and work on defining your goals for the year, making sure they’re SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic/Relevant and Timebound). In this way there cannot be much confusion about whether or not they were achieved when the time for your annual appraisal comes round. It will also make it easier for both of you not to worry about presenteeism and working flexibly.

Third, how many of us actually ask what we need to do to get promoted? It’s a good idea to seek a clear definition of what success looks like. Make sure, too, that your manager knows you want to be promoted. In this context, recent evidence has suggested that women shy away from senior finance careers.

Fourth, it’s important to avoid making your relationship adversarial. This is likely to be totally unproductive as you are, after all, ostensibly on the same team and it’s unlikely either of you wants to fill your days with strife. However, it’s difficult to backtrack once you’ve given your manager a frank appraisal of their shortcomings even if you apologise afterwards. So if you ever feel you are becoming emotional and are about to boil over make an excuse and leave the room – better still the building – and go somewhere to cool down. People will respect you for it.

Lastly, be patient and prepared if necessary to play a long(ish) game. After all, time is on your side. If the relationship seems beyond redemption, then you must move as soon as you can but otherwise, waiting often works. In my experience, the worst managers – both male and female – eventually get weeded out. Just sit it out? It’s not the only alternative, but a positive approach and acceptance that change takes time in large organisations are useful if you work in one.

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