How to Work with an Incompetent Project Manager

“When working with an incompetent, but well-liked project manager, you must set aside your ego, or your career will be damaged.” Jeannette Seibly

Working with an incompetent project manager is difficult at best. They can sabotage your efforts while costing everyone time and money. And, this can happen whether you’re working with a PM in your company, or volunteering to work on a community project with an incompetent PM.

Many times, the project manager’s incompetence is due to a lack of self-awareness and failure to understand the impact they have on others. They insist everything is done their way; even, when their way doesn’t work! The primary reason they are incompetent is they never learned “how” to work with a team. And, they are often resentful if you know a better way to get results.

The difficult challenge is when the PM is well-liked and has positive notoriety or a great reputation. So…it’s up to you to learn how to work with them…they don’t have to learn to work well with you!

One volunteer offered to help a not-for-profit leader work on a committee for their biggest money-maker of the year. The leader was well-liked, donated a lot of money, and had a good reputation in the community. The problem? She was an incompetent project manager. She insisted on doing everything herself and didn’t know how to delegate. When the volunteer asked, “What can I do?”, she ignored his offers. But when she failed to get the job done, she didn’t hesitate to blame him at a group meeting for not doing his share.

Remember, even though it might be easier for you to take over the PM role to get the job done, that person’s popularity and ego can hurt you and your future career opportunities when not handled with a lot of diplomacy.

5 Tips to Work Well with Incompetent Project Managers and Keep Your Job

Diplomacy. This is the #1 skill to develop and use rigorously. Being right or egotistical or gossiping about the incompetency of the PM will not get the job done. And, if you do complain it will come back to bite you! Instead, be an ally. Take the person to lunch. Ask non-threatening questions about his/her background and experience. Then, ask how the project is coming along. Offer to do one task the PM is complaining about, “to help the person out.” Get it done asap. Then, ask, “How else can I help you?”

Do It Their Way. The biggest fear most PMs have is that others won’t do it their way. It’s true…you and others won’t. But to gain their trust, do it their way the first time; then, offer only one suggestion on how it could be done faster or better in the future (e.g., using a social media strategy or using excel to track progress, etc.). Remember, only offer one suggestion at a time and then allow it to be their idea!

Bring in a Respected 3rd Party. You may not have the luxury of waiting for the incompetent project manager to “get it.” Talk with your company mentor or boss, and/or external company coach about how to best handle the issue. Remember, stick with the facts. But understand your internal mentor and/or boss may be unwilling to “rock the boat” since it could negatively impact them.

An aspiring young leader, Sara, volunteered to work with an executive, Trevor, an incompetent project manager. She knew from Trevor’s reputation he was difficult and unafraid to blame others. Sara asked her coach what to do. Armed with insights, Sara asked Trevor if she could shadow him for a day and learn about his background and job. He was flattered. Over time, the two built a good working relationship. So, when the inevitable time came when Trevor was poorly managing a customer project, Sara was able to step up. She relied on their good working relationship to have a frank, but diplomatic conversation. Trevor allowed Sara to help him and turn around the results.

Document. Be proactive, and ask at least twice, “How can I help?” OR “What would you like me to do?” Then document you did not get an answer or there was push-back. Keep it fact-based (stay away from blame). Share with your boss to keep him/her apprised, especially if it can show up on your performance appraisal.

When All Else Fails, Let It Go. If you are a highly responsible person this will be very difficult. You probably have a strong commitment or an emotional attachment to doing a good job and fulfilling the needs of the project. But when an incompetent project manager refuses to budge, you have to step back. Especially if no one is willing to help facilitate the outcome. If you don’t, you will develop a bad reputation for “not working well with others.” (Ironic, isn’t it?)

©Jeannette Seibly 2021 All Rights Reserved

Jeannette Seibly is The Leadership Results Coach. She has been an award-winning executive coach, management consultant, and keynote speaker for over 28 years. Her focus is getting leaders and their teams unstuck and able to achieve dynamic results. Contact Jeannette for a confidential conversation. 

A note from Jeannette about working with an incompetent project manager. Always remember, you get to be right or you get to be effective. Being right will be short-lived. Being effective can build a positive and long-lasting reputation with most people, including incompetent project managers. Be patient. It takes time. But in the long run, you will save time, money, and energy … and your career. If you are frustrated and want to yell at an incompetent PM, FIRST…before doing anything…contact me for a confidential conversation. It’ll save your career!

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