What to Do When You’re Smarter Than Your Boss

By Matt Arnerich - Inspiring Interns - London

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Have you heard of the Peter Principle?

Even if you haven’t, the chances are that you’ve come across it.

The idea is that if somebody is good at their job, they get promoted. Then if they’re good at that job, they get promoted again, and so on. So what happens when they’re bad at a job?

Well, they stay there.

That’s the Peter Principle. Essentially, you get promoted to your level of incompetency, and stay there. This is why there are so many woeful mid-managers out there. If you’re good at following orders, it doesn’t make you good at working out what they are. If you’re good at reporting, it doesn’t mean you’re good at deciding what reports to make, and so on.

But what do you do if you’re aspiring to make your way up the career ladder and you’re stuck with a manager who is much less talented than you are? Well, you learn from it…

Be honest with yourself

In any situation, the most important thing is to recognise what you do and don’t have, and none so more than when you think you’ve got all the smarts.

Maybe you are more intelligent, more experienced or plain better at certain things, but perhaps there are gaps that can be plugged. Maybe you could do with being slightly more ruthless, or maybe you know the sector inside-out but struggle with building key relationships.

Either way, intelligence isn’t always the same as effectiveness. Be honest with what you have and where you’re most effective and the chances are you’ll find something you can learn from your boss.

Work out why they got there

People get promoted for a whole variety of reasons. Sometimes they’re killer leaders, have proven track records or have an innovative approach. Sometimes they just appeared to work harder, spent long enough at the company, or went to school with someone on the board.

If you’re keen to get ahead in that specific organisation, work out how and why they got to where they are. If you learn to play the game a bit, when the time is right for you, you’ll have the double threat of being qualified as well as going down the right route.

Maybe your boss does something that the head honchos really value, such as being proactive about new business, or always delivering projects on time. Pick up on the things that worked for your boss and your attitude will be focused on taking a positive step towards advancing your career, instead of bringing someone else down.

Learn what not to do

The chances are, that you’ll be in a similar leadership position yourself one day. You may be in charge of a member of staff who you know deep down is better than you are at least in some key areas.

By being in this position yourself, you’ll learn so much that will inform your ability to lead in the future. In fact, it’s often a sign of a good company that they look to hire people under them who are smarter, as it prevents the kind of micro-management that ruins productivity.

By identifying your skills and filling the gaps in your knowledge, you know that you would have been a far more productive member of the team. As a result, it’ll feel much easier to park your ego and work out how to get the best out of a talented individual at a later date.

Take the right amount of credit

One of the important things to remember is that your success is your boss’ success too. While a paranoid manager may look to take credit, be careful to take pride in your accomplishments, and blow your proverbial trumpet just enough so that those around you understand your role.

You don’t want to be seen as bragging by the rest of the office or by your boss’ boss, but you do want to receive credit where credit’s due. To all but the most pernicious boss, your success will be seen as a reflection on them.

On top of this, remember that there is nothing wrong with giving your boss undeserved credit sometimes. Provided they’re not taking it all, occasionally making them complicit in your achievements will make them look good. After all they’re the boss; if you make them look good, they’ll make you look good in return.

Don’t patronise them

One of the best ways of looking at this problem is to teach up. But how do you notify your boss of the fact that you’re far more organised or better able to look at the big picture, for example, without coming off as patronising or a threat?

Start by asking if you can take the jobs off their plate that you know they’re struggling with. Give them the chance to utilise your experience and knowledge, and they may start to ask you for help on certain things they find difficult themselves.

By the same token, they may be more inclined to offer expertise in the areas they do know. Just remember that no matter how appealing it might seem, it’s best to leave the patronising tone at home. Giving attitude to your boss is very unlikely to go down well in any situation, especially if you’re revealing a gap in their knowledge. Keep it helpful and respectful.


Know when to call it quits

So it really doesn’t look like they’ve hired you knowing that you’re smarter. You’re left with a belligerent manager whose ego is too big to learn from you and genuinely has nothing useful to pass on.

It’s probably time to go.

Once you’ve stopped learning from an environment, and you can’t see any sign of the situation improving, it’s time to find a more engaging environment.

As the old saying goes, ‘if you’re the smartest person in the room, it’s time to find another room’.

Matt Arnerich works as a content writer over at the UK's leading graduate recruitment agency Inspiring Interns. He specialises in careers advice for young people looking to get into internships and graduate jobs in London, although writes across the spectrum of recruitment, job hunt tips and personal development. Check out the Inspiring Interns blog for specialist graduate careers advice, or if you're looking to hire a graduate, then get in touch!


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