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Staying motivated when your manager is inexperienced

“How do I maintain morale and motivation while working for an inexperienced boss?"

Bill Carroll, Carroll Applied Science, L.L.C.

Before I go deeply into detail, my basic answer is: you will do so because you are a professional.

First, let’s talk about what “inexperienced” means, and I’m going to take it as a euphemism.  I can think of three alternative scenarios: 1) competent manager but new to the area, 2) competent employee but new to management and 3) incompetent. In a way, the correct answer to all three situations involves making yourself valuable to this person.

When I started as Manager of Research—my first management position—my boss, the Director of Technology, had most recently been a plant technical manager, not a scientist. He was given that Director position because we were not an academic research group: we needed to get new stuff into the plant or fix what was there, and the technology groups needed to be aligned.

On just about my first day, Ray told me: “Your most important job is to keep me from falling in a hole,” and I think that goes along with supporting any boss. An important corollary is to figure out what the boss needs to know and to figure out a way of presenting it to her in a way she can absorb and appreciate. That's sometimes called "managing up."

Fun fact. Despite his manufacturing orientation, he had enough scientific curiosity that we wound up studying and publishing some fundamental mechanistic work in our area of polymer chemistry. It didn’t look like it would be that way at the beginning.

For situation 1) above, becoming a manager is like becoming a parent.  Study all you like, the real education is on-the-job training with real live human beings and you as a subordinate will be providing some of that.  Give that new manager some slack and help her figure it out.

Situation 2) is similar, in that a competent person will know what she doesn’t know and will most likely rely on you to help fill it in. She is also going to need to be able to trust what you tell her because she won’t have equal technical skills to fact-check or second-guess you. Your information needs to be right-first-time and explained in a way that is useful to her.

And for either situation 1) or situation 2) don’t forget: your boss has a boss too.  Walking on a balance beam six inches above the ground is technically no more difficult than walking on one ten feet off the ground, but the consequences of an error are different. Be mindful of her pressures.

Alaina Levine in “Networking For Nerds” talks about three things that each of us needs to cultivate and curate: Our Brand, Our Attitude and Our Reputation. If you’ve evaluated your boss as an incompetent manager of people, then we really do need to talk about your morale and motivation, which I’m going to boil down and call Attitude.

I believe that human beings can smell attitude on each other from about ten feet away. We’re constantly evaluating cues from other people that help inform us how to act in their presence. We can sense someone with a good attitude, or various kinds of bad ones.

If you’ve decided your boss is incompetent, it will be virtually impossible for you to keep that evaluation to yourself, and your attitude will become obvious to your co-workers and, make no mistake, eventually to your boss.  You will smell to everyone like “that guy.”

And on what objective basis did you make that decision? Errors? Lack of knowledge of the field? Lack of experience as a manager? Geez, you should be helping with that. Or maybe it’s a twinge of professional jealousy on your part? Examine your conscience and make sure you’re blaming the right person. Don’t forget: she didn’t get the job because one day she just turned up in the office. She was appointed. Not everyone thinks she’s incompetent even if you do.

Make no mistake: in my career I had good bosses and bad bosses.  But the one thing they all had in common was they were my bosses and had the endorsement of their management, at least at that time.  My opinion was not compelling; it was my job to do my job.

So back to the answer to the question: you will do so because you are a professional, and because you realize that for the good of the company it will be important for you to find ways help the situation rather than lament it or withdraw.  You can’t control the situation, but you can control your attitude.  Turn the knob that’s connected to something.  And if you can’t do that, if you can’t manage your attitude as a professional, then for the good of everyone you should find another position. 

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