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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

3 Smart Steps to Take if You're More Qualified Than Your Boss

Over drinks a few weeks ago, a good friend vented to me about her job. After several minutes of trying to articulate exactly what she wanted to say, she blurted out, “Bottom line: I shouldn’t be working for my supervisor. He should be working for me.” Yes, it’s quite the bold statement, but after a few frustrating weeks, it was how she felt.

And I don’t think she’s alone. I’ve definitely had moments in which I felt similarly—moments in which my supervisor was ill-equipped to lead my team in the direction we needed to go. If you feel this way, it’s not fun.

But “diminishing your boss's real strengths, overreacting to his errors, and resisting or resenting his authority are self-inflicted career problems,” says Judith Sills, psychologist and author of Excess Baggage: Getting Out of Your Own Way. “You do need to be learning something in your job. You do need to feel personally valued. When you distort your boss in a negative direction, you make both less likely.”

So, before you throw in the towel or demand change, there are three things you should do first to better the situation. Because the real bottom line is that if you continue to think this way, you’ll just enter into a downward spiral that gets harder and harder to recover from.

1. Remember That Your Manager Is Just That—a Manager

Let’s say your supervisor’s in charge of four people. She is not the sum of the four of you. She can’t (and won’t) know every single thing each of you knows. If she did, she’d be Superwoman. And she also may not need you (or the others) at all.

Rather, your supervisor has a much different type of responsibility on her plate—managing you and your teammates. In this type of role, she’s supposed to be able to see the big picture, support you, and guide you. According to Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback, co-authors of Being the Boss: Three Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, a manager needs to know “enough to understand the work, enough to be able to make good judgments about it, enough to understand the common hurdles, and enough to coach or find help for those [she manages] when they struggle with problems.”

So yes, you’re going to need to bring her up to speed sometimes so she can adequately assist you. If you’re frustrated because she doesn’t know every microscopic detail, perhaps you need to give her a break and remember she’s human.

However, if find yourself constantly repeating things to her, asking for guidance and receiving none, or being asked for advice on every decision she has to make, then, yep—maybe she isn’t quite as qualified as she should be.

2. Reevaluate Where You Stand

Even if you determine the individual you report to should, in fact, not be in the role he’s in, that doesn’t mean you’re fit for it either (at least not yet, anyway). Take a step back and look at your current situation. How are you performing at your job? What was your last performance review like?

“Ask yourself if you’re genuinely smarter than your manager, or if it’s possible that you’re more qualified in some areas but not others,” suggests Amy Gallo, contributing editor to Harvard Business Review and author of HBR Guide to Managing People at Work. It’s awfully hypocritical to criticize others if you’re not doing what it takes to do your job as well as possible.

Yes, it’s hard to provide a completely objective review on your own performance, so this is a great opportunity to ask for input from others (even if it’s not annual review time). You can start with your director, as that’s a more natural and common scenario, but don’t stop there. Ask others you work with, too.

Soliciting feedback from your colleagues may seem like a scary endeavor,” says Muse writer Jennifer Winter, “but with enough time, patience, and planning, you’ll set yourself—and your colleagues—up for success with open, honest, real-time, feedback.” It may be just the reality check that says, “Hey—he may not be the best fit to lead us, but I still have room for improvement, too.” And then? Work on those areas that need it most.

3. Identify the Gaps and Fill Them

Instead of whining about what the leader of your team lacks, do what you can to fill in those gaps. Because, as Gallo says, “There’s no reason not to be generous. If your boss is successful, there’s a greater chance you’ll be successful too.”

Let’s say you’re part of your company’s marketing department, and the creative director has zero Photoshop skills. While she has a great vision, it’s frustrating because it limits her capability to jump in and cover when you’re gone, as well as her ability to help you when you’re experiencing difficulty with the program.

But, rather than blabbing to the entire office about how incompetent she is, you can take action. First, make sure you’re up-to-date with the product (because—gasp—there might be something you don’t know, either). Then, offer to train her and your co-workers. Sure, it’ll probably rub her the wrong way if you say, “Hi. You’re pretty horrible at this and it’s ruining my life. Let me help you.”

A better approach would be something like this: “I just took a refresher course on Photoshop. In the next team meeting, can I review what I’ve learned?” Not only does this show initiative, but it also provides you the opportunity to learn new skills, gain experience in training others, and add both to your resume. (Which never hurts, right?) And maybe—just maybe—your boss will pay attention and increase her skill set, too.

It’s can be exasperating to report to someone who, well, really isn’t that great at his or her job. And the truth is, you probably can’t stomp around and request she be replaced ASAP (without repercussions). Instead, you should try to change your perspective and focus on what you can change. After all—if you eventually do want land a promotion at this company or even leave for a position at another company, learning how to handle challenging situations professionally is key to anything you do next.

Photo of meeting courtesy of Corey Jenkins/Getty Images.