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Whatever You Do, Don't Be Smarter Than Your Boss

Are candidates more qualified than their boss? We surveyed 1,000 employees to see if they would subvert their manager and what they would do differently if they were in charge.

Bart Turczynski
Career Expert
Whatever You Do, Don't Be Smarter Than Your Boss

better than boss

In 2017, Americans were more educated than ever before. According to the latest census, 90% of the U.S. population aged 25 and older had completed four years of high school or more. As the American population becomes more educated, though, so too does the workforce: people with a university degree filled 9 in 10 new jobs in the last year. However, this might mean you're overqualified for your job.

So what happens when you're more qualified than your boss – or at least think you are? Do employees go over their boss's head or even try to get them fired?

We surveyed 1,000 employees who felt they were more qualified than their boss and asked if they'd ever subverted their manager and what they would do differently if they were in charge. Keep reading to see what we found.

Above the Boss?

Despite the growing number of employees exceeding the requirements of a position, only 21.7% of respondents believed they were more qualified than their manager. That percentage jumped to nearly a third when looking at remote employees, though. Of course, remote employees are a bit more removed from the day-to-day office and may have a different sense of their manager's responsibilities, but a sense of qualification may also stem from their increased productivity brought on by working from home.


On top of that, employees working in higher-pressure work environments were 3.7 times as likely to feel more qualified than their manager, compared to those working in low-pressure workplaces. And working from home is sure to relieve some of that pressure.

Being more removed from one's manager or superior may also carry over to company size – while under 20% of employees in large companies believed they were more qualified than their manager, 26% of employees in midsize companies believed the same. The number of employees and management between different sized companies is likely responsible for more or less interaction between superiors and their employees. In large companies, the CEO and other executives are less likely to show their face around the office or interact daily with lower-level employees, whereas this may be more common when the company is midsize.

Gaps in Belief

As most may expect, there were also differences between the genders and generations when it came to the belief that they were more qualified than their manager. Twenty-four percent of men believed they were more qualified than their manager, but only 18.7% of women said the same – and some may argue this is a prime example of the confidence gap.


However, the idea that men and women differ in confidence when it comes to their abilities may be just a myth. Rather, the gender norms and stereotypes that allow men to appear, speak, and act overly confident may instil fear in women for doing the same. Women may think or know they are more qualified than their boss, but they are significantly less likely to admit it.

Millennials were also the most likely generation to believe they were more qualified than their manager, and some may point a finger at the "arrogance" label the generation so often gets. Compared to just 17.7% of baby boomers and 21.1% of Gen Xers, 23% of millennials believed they were more qualified than their superior. However, as millennials flood the workforce, and baby boomers forego retirement, younger employees are likely reporting to older managers. Millennials are more adaptable and technologically savvy, though, which likely fuels their belief that they are more qualified than those they report to.

Considering experience plays a major role in qualification, entry-level and intermediate employees were significantly less likely than those in management positions to believe they were more qualified than their boss. A combination of experience and distance between positions may explain why entry-level and midlevel managers were twice as likely to believe they were more qualified than their superiors.

What Would You Do?

While experience and education certainly play a role in believing you're more qualified than your boss, only 41.9% and 40.6% of respondents cited experience and education, respectively, as their reason behind this belief. Instead, the top reasons employees gave for believing they were more qualified were better people skills and a better understanding of day-to-day responsibilities.


While lower-level employees are typically expected to show up to the office every day, managers may be more flexible in their schedules and not even show their face in the office at all. When that occurs, and employees are left filling in for their managers or undertaking more responsibility in their absence, it may create resentment.

On the other hand, people skills are rooted in the debate over hard and soft skills. While hard skills fill a CV and are meant to prepare employees for the technical side of the job, soft skills are necessary for a healthy work environment, proper leadership, and a solid relationship with clients. But a combination of the two is vital to success. However, managers with less soft skills are likely hurting their position, leading lower-level employees to believe they might be underqualified.

Nearly 35% of employees surveyed said they would create goals for employees if they were in charge, while 34.3% said they would increase employee pay. Team bonding, focusing on improving office culture, and employee bonuses were also changes that nearly a third of employees would make if they held a position of power. While it's difficult to implement new policies, change salaries, and alter the focus of a team as an employee, management can create a dialogue with their workers so that employees at every level feel heard and appreciated.

Swapping Styles

Aside from more drastic changes like salary increases and bonuses, 55.2% of employees would also employ a different management style if they were in charge.


The majority of employees reported that their managers currently used a consultative approach, where managers may consult their employees but ultimately make the final decision. However, nearly 20% of managers reportedly used a democratic style of managing. And while 44.8% would employ similar strategies as their managers, 37.4% would choose a consultative approach, and 30.3% would opt for a democratic management method.


Going Above and Beyond

There are company positions for a reason, and undermining a superior is typically never a good idea. But when an employee feels more qualified than their manager, resisting doing what one thinks is best can be difficult. Thirteen percent of employees admitted to subverting their manager, but the reasoning behind the move was largely positive. Over 42% of employees who subverted their manager did so to save time, while nearly 40% did so to help a co-worker.


Avoiding confrontation and helping the client or the company were also big reasons for subversion. Very few employees undermined their manager to get them fired – an action that could backfire and get the employee booted instead.

While nearly three-fourths of employees said they had never lied to their manager, remote workers were a bit riskier with the truth. Out-of-office employees were 24% more likely to lie to their manager compared to their in-office counterparts. Of course, telling a lie over the phone or through an email is much easier than face to face with a manager, but unless there is a good reason for lying, "honesty is the best policy" also applies to the workplace.

Toxic Workplaces

Workplaces are toxic for various reasons, but nearly 16% of employees cited their manager as toxic to the workplace. One in 10 employees had also filed a formal complaint against their manager. While claiming more qualification is likely not a good enough reason to complain to human resources or higher-level executives, a manager making the workplace toxic is a solid reason to take action.


Satisfaction and Salary

The survey found that employees who thought they're more qualified than their superiors were less likely to be satisfied at work. Compared to 87.7% of employees who didn't believe they're more qualified, only 62.7% of those who did say they were satisfied with their job.


Seeing that happy and satisfied employees are also more productive workers, those who didn't believe they were more qualified than their superiors also reported being more productive. Despite being less productive and less satisfied with their job and salary, employees who believed they were more qualified than their manager earned a higher average annual salary than their counterparts.

How Do You Really Feel?

A lack of satisfaction may not lead many to speak up, though. While 21% of employees described their boss as a micromanager, and 18% felt their manager was always absent, nearly 56% wouldn't tell their boss how they truly feel about them. Nevertheless, 46% of employees felt comfortable giving their manager feedback – which is typically more constructive.


Regardless of airing out negative feelings or giving constructive criticism, over 3 in 4 employees planned on sticking around for the next year. However, employees who believed they were more qualified were significantly more likely to plan on quitting – of the 24.4% who planned to quit in the coming year, nearly 50% believed they were more qualified than their manager.

Moving On Up

Every employee wants a CV filled with experience and skills, showing off their qualifications for a position. But when a bachelor's degree, years of experience, and an accumulation of soft skills add up to feeling more qualified than your boss, the workplace can become a nightmare. Feeling more qualified than a superior can cause employees to undermine their managers, submit a formal complaint, and even quit their job.


To avoid complications, decreased job satisfaction, and less productivity, qualified employees may want to look for higher-level positions. Ensuring your CV is up to date and styled to catch recruiters' attention is vital to standing out among the rest. At ResumeLab, you can view hundreds of CV examples for various professions and receive tips from hiring managers and recruiters – all from data-backed strategies that work. To learn more, visit us online today.

Methodology and Limitations

For this project, we issued online questionnaires to 1,000 Americans using Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Of the 1,000 people surveyed, 49.2% identified as women, 50.5% were men, and 0.3% identified as neither male nor female. The majority of respondents – 62.2% – were millennials; 27% were Gen Xers; 7.9% were baby boomers; and 2.9% belonged to either Generation Z or the silent generation. To qualify for this survey, participants were required to be employed and report to a superior. To ensure that respondents took the survey seriously, we administered an attention-check question. Those who failed to identify and correctly answer the question were ejected from the survey. Outliers were removed where appropriate, specifically where annual salary was questioned. As with all surveys, this campaign's main limitation is that the data rely on self-reporting, and possible issues with self-reported responses include but aren't limited to the following: bias, recency, attribution, exaggeration, or telescoping.


Fair Use Statement

Feeling more qualified than a superior can be frustrating, especially when you don't know what to do about it. Knowing you're not alone and receiving tips on how to best handle the situation can help tremendously. If you'd like to share the findings of our study with someone who may benefit, this project's graphics and content are available for noncommercial reuse. Just make sure to link back to this page to give the authors proper credit.

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Bart Turczynski
Bart Turczynski’s career advice and commentary have been published by Glassdoor, The Chicago Tribune, Workopolis, The Financial Times, Hewlett-Packard, and CareerBuilder, among others. Bart’s mission is to promote the best, data-informed, and up-to-date career advice through numerous online communities and publications. Bart’s lifelong passion for politics and a strong background in psychology make all the advice he publishes unique and supported by detailed research.

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