The Wimpy Boss

I have written about bully bosses a couple of times, but I never addressed the other end of the spectrum – wimpy bosses. While not as obnoxious as a bully boss, the wimpy boss can be exasperating in different ways. Let’s look at some of the characteristics of a wimpy boss and follow up with some tips in case you happen to be paired up with one.

I am reminded of the cartoon character “Wimpy” in the Popeye Cartoon, (I know I am dating myself – and as Groucho used to say, “If you’re dating yourself, you aren’t likely to have many children”). Wimpy was famous for the line, “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” That characteristic of postponing things is one of the hallmarks of a wimpy boss. Regardless of the issue, there are some bosses who do not want to face making a decision, so they ask for more analysis or more time. Eventually people get the message that there isn’t going to be a firm answer.

Another trait of a wimpy boss is that the person will not stand up for people who work for him or her. If upper layers of management perceive an individual incorrectly, the wimpy boss is going to be a “yes man” and not challenge the misconception.

Wimpy bosses do not hold firm to decisions made on principle. They bend with the breeze coming from on high and waffle when asked to take a stand on issues involving integrity. They are like chameleons and change colors to blend in with the background.

When a person is abusing other employees, the wimpy boss does not step in with strong action to stop the problem. Instead, problems are allowed to fester and well up because the boss has no strength or backbone.

What can you do if you have a wimpy boss? That is a really good question, because you are not likely to change this person. The weak habits are a form of self preservation, laziness, or just plain being gutless. No amount of coaching is likely to reverse a lifetime of bad habits in this area. If you are reporting to a wimpy boss, the best you can do is document your requests carefully and make sure you copy others, such as senior management or HR in on your requests.

Make sure the need for decisions have a date fixed to them and that a large number of people are aware of the delivery date. If needed, send reminders a reasonable time before the due date.
If you see some signs of strength emerging, reinforce the boss enthusiastically for taking action. It will serve to encourage stronger action in the future.

Lastly, training can help a wimpy boss learn how to handle difficult situations and also make more firm decisions. You may not be in a position to nudge the boss directly to get some training, but there could be indirect ways to let it be known that some additional seasoning would be beneficial. Each organization will have a different political hierarchy that includes not only the wimpy boss but also that person’s peers, manager, HR, and the Development Group. As an underling to a wimpy boss, you need to be careful how and when you point out opportunities for improvement.

26 Responses to The Wimpy Boss

  1. Thanks for a very thoughtful post, as always, Robert. I once worked for an HR Director who was a nice person, but so passive that he let (or asked) the CFO to create the budget for HR … every year! Needless to say, getting him to “take a stand” — much less, to “take a risk” — in pushing items of importance up the hierarchy was virtually impossible. Predictably, the department was stuck in “learned helplessness” mode for many years.

    My solution to “fixing” it was to resign after two years, to go to grad school full-time. I believe the situation wasn’t really fixed until they found a way to nudge him into retirement several years later. It was, though, a sad waste of years of potential solutions to organizational problems.

    Michael B

    • trustambassador says:

      Thanks, Michael. I agree that the best antidote in many cases is to go elsewhere to make a different path for your life. In your case you made lemonaid.

  2. I see it as a real sign of overall organizational weakness or indifference when “wimpy” boss is allowed to remain at their post. Maybe in the days of command and control, from the top down management approaches this type of individual could remain – as largey orders got flitered down and everyone obeyed.

    In today’s market economy and with a young, engaged and highly connected workforce – having a leader who challenges (and is not afraid to be challenged), having an advocate (who is not afraid to go to bat for their team’s ideas), and having a visionary (who is not afraid to do “new things”), is what allowes a company to flourish and prosper.

    Companies who can’t recognize that and allow dead heads to remain will continue to see brain drain as their talent moves elsewhere.

  3. Sally says:

    My boss told me once that he had gotten as far as had in life by eating a lot of @#$%, he feared I didn’t have much of a stomach for such things, and I need to learn to keep my head down and my mouth shut. How’s that for a leadership style? His philosophy within the organization is to stay off the radar and don’t be noticed unless it is for something positive – don’t rock the boat. When he asks how soon something can be completed and we give him an answer, he says that ‘s not good enough and cuts the timeline in half, making it an impossible task.
    “You’re on salary – do whatever it takes; this is not a 9 – 5 job!” He does not back us up or do anything to facilitate our achieving the goal; rather, he loads more on by making additional impossible promises every time he goes to another meeting or conference, which is often. (You told them WHAT!?!?) I am a project coordinator and “supervise” six other people, but I am not their boss – they report to him.
    Find another job? I’m 64 years old with three years to go before hitting the silver (not golden) benchmark of having 20 years in the NYS Employee Retirement System (should it still be around).
    Any suggestions?

  4. new career says:

    Bob, I left a work environment after 28 yrs for numerous reasons. One being that many of the managers were groomed to be wimpy. Everyone loved it as long as the numbers worked out. When they did not, upper management came down on the managers that were there to mae things happen, and of course this immediately caused issues with the rank and file, because they were accustomed to wimpy. When the numbers don’t work, you do not have time to encourage or entice the employees, it usually eans you have to take immediate actions.
    Many managers that I worked with told me the best way to manage, was to take the way of least resistance. This method allows the poor employees to become empowered over the very effective employees. This can work for years until an audit or a manager comes in that will identify non-productivity, large sick usage percentages and or bad customer service.
    I rarely see wimpy bosses besing identified – thanks Bob.

  5. D J says:

    Bob, there’s not hiding you hit the nail on the head. My boss possesses all of the traits you list in the article. A few more might be lack of strategic planning, attention deficit disorder and an unattractive ability to think competition and bullying among peers is a good way to get all sides to solving a problem – which never actually happens. In my case, he’s the owner and I’m the CFO the only recourse I have is to sweat out a bad economy and move on as quickly as possible.

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