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When the boss is an idiot, it pays to be smart

(ran SP, NP editions)

Do you work for an idiot?

By John Hoover's figures, half of us do.

Oops, make that half of you do. My bosses are all Mensa material.

The 51-year-old management consultant is creating a New Year's buzz with his just published How to Work for an Idiot: Survive & Thrive Without Killing Your Boss.

"I'm finding that it's a topic that resonates with everyone," said Hoover, an adjunct management faculty member at Aquinas College in Nashville, and former midlevel executive with Walt Disney Productions and McGraw-Hill.

Idiots beget idiots in many organizational charts, he said, giving stupid souls power over brighter thinkers like you and me. They surround themselves with like minds to create a "readily available pool of sacrificial lambs if things go wrong."

And when one procreator gets promoted, Hoover said, that "large sucking sound" is fellow idiots moving up, too.

Hoover's book started out as a self-help treatise called How to Manage People Who Are Smarter, More Talented and Productive Than You Are. But no publisher would touch it, and no idiot would buy it or adhere to its lessons.

So the self-proclaimed "recovering idiot boss" turned the tables on himself and the management dolts he's coached for the past 13 years. The first step is to make certain your boss is truly an I-Boss, Hoover's name for clueless managers who can't see the debilitating effects of their actions.

There are, you see, other problem managers: Gods (self-deified Napoleons), Machiavellians (iron-fisted rulers), Masochistics (failure addicts), Sadistics (pain inflictors), Paranoids (conspiracy hunters) and Buddies (friendly, visionless saps).

Mistake a Machiavellian for an Idiot, for example, and you're doomed, Hoover said. "These are very smart people, shrewd and calculating. The worst thing you can do is stumble into his or her path."

In the cosmic scheme of bosses, Hoover said, you're probably better off with a more malleable I-Boss. "An idiot who hasn't a clue might actually get a clue."

He did. But, Hoover said, he'll never be completely cured. "I find myself at crossroads daily, and I always have the opportunity to do the intelligent thing or something remarkably stupid."

When he reaches these junctures, he reminds himself of past mistakes.

As a divisional general manager for McGraw-Hill in 1990, he received a self-published paperback that he thought was clever but too pedestrian for a serious psychology book. He felt pretty smug about his decision to pass on it. "Colossally stupid," he said in retrospect.

You see, another publisher was more than willing to take a chance on Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

Hoover cautions against applying the Idiot label too quickly. What appear to be stupid genes may just be a regular person with idiosyncrasies.

"Idiots have no problem connecting one dot. They can do this all day long if left without adult supervision," he said. "But God forbid if you ever ask them to consider triangulation. Their heads would explode." Forget the blame game, he advises. It's up to you to improve these toxic relationships. Expecting your manager to have an epiphany is "like you drinking a cup of poison and waiting for your boss to die."

One tactic is to appear dumber than Mr. or Ms. Dumb. "By adopting the appearance of an idiot, you can move up the organization without threatening anyone," he said. But this charade is stressful, may hack off co-workers and could get you in trouble with any smart boss up the management chain.

A better route is to make your boss think your ideas are his. Learn "idiot speak." By that Hoover means find what floats your boss' boat and use that to get your point across. If your superior is a hockey fan, learn about the sport. You don't have to use a puck for a paperweight, he said, but pay attention so you can use casual conversation to lead into a productive one.

"For 2004, resolve to accept the boss for whatever she or he is," Hoover recommends. "If your situation is truly untenable, quit."

But then again, he warns, you have a 50-50 shot at simply trading one idiot for another.

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