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How To Improve A Troubled Relationship With Your Boss

How to improve a troubled relationship with your boss

We spend a great deal of time at work.  Consequently, it is crucial to our wellbeing that we feel safe, happy, purposeful, and productive when we are there.  Life is too short to hang around in an unhappy environment.

There are many reasons why you might be unhappy at work.  My earlier blog deals with some of these concerns.  But, if the main reason is that you are not getting on with your boss, what should you do?

Some of my clients have expressed that they want to quit their job because of a difficult relationship with their boss.  Quitting is a big decision and warrants careful consideration before you submit your resignation.  The answer is not necessarily to find new boss!  First, it is worth exploring what you might try to put the relationship in a better place.

Managing upwards is tough!  It requires a high level of self-awareness and confidence and the realisation that no one is perfect – not you, and certainly not your boss!  Improving the relationship requires an openness to learning, a trial-and-error attitude and the ability to reflect on what works, and what does not.

In this article I have highlighted 4 of the most common ‘boss’ relationship problems and what you might do about them before throwing in the towel.

Typical Problems:

The 100 ideas a day boss

This can be very frustrating, especially when you are working hard to achieve the challenging goals you already have in front of you.  It is important not to criticise the ideas in the moment (unless they are blatantly ridiculous!).  Recognise that not all random ideas require action.  Sometimes she/he might just be brainstorming.  I had a boss that did this!  Over time I learnt that he frequently forgot our conversation.  I also learnt to recognise which ideas would stick.  I did this by noticing his frequent mention of them in conversations with me and others.

If it is not a stream of consciousness brainstorm, consider which ideas you can quickly or easily execute.  Be positive about these.  For the bigger more complex ideas, you might describe the anticipated resources or time commitment required.  You could tactfully enquire how a new idea fits with the current (agreed) priorities – and what you might drop to accommodate the new work involved.

Work to understand your boss’s preferred communication and work style.  For example try to assess whether they are an ‘in the moment’ type of person who likes to bounce new ideas around with people.  This will make a big difference to how you respond.  Do acknowledge their ideas – even when they are numerous!  Sometimes they may just want you to listen rather than act.  If they are expecting you to act, return to the priorities conversation and how their idea fits with that, and what other work you could drop.

The controlling and/or micro-managing boss

This behaviour is often due to the lack of an accountability culture or lack of trust.  An accountability framework starts with agreeing what needs to be achieved, what resources are required, as well as agreeing timeframes and reporting mechanisms.  If there is a misunderstanding of any of these issues, disappointment will ensue!

A crucial part of managing this situation is to ensure that you and your boss agree what needs to be done, by when, and how you will update them on progress.  If you disagree, now is the time to politely explain why it can not or should not be done.  Ask about your boss’s priorities and use these to shape the conversation.  Link the conversation to your agreed objectives, especially if your boss is suggesting additional work that you don’t have capacity for.

When my clients report that their boss is too controlling and task oriented, we work on what I call the ‘What and How rule’.  This involves allowing your boss to state WHAT they need to be achieved.  Your role is then to determine HOW it will be done.  The way to do this is to ask your boss WHAT questions (such as what outcome they are looking for).  It is important to avoid allowing the conversation slip into details about the process of HOW it will be done.  Obviously, it also requires agreement that it is possible to achieve the desired outcome within the set timescale.

The unconstructive or over critical boss

First, be honest with yourself.  Is there any truth in the criticism?  Try to establish the facts or evidence that has led to this point of view.  For example, you could ask what has led him/her to believe this.  Their answer will help you reflect on whether there might be genuine grounds for the criticism.

If the criticism is about you, do not blame your team (or someone else).  When something has gone wrong – be accountable, apologise and agree to put it right (if it’s possible).  If you are upset or stressed by the conversation, wait until you are in a calmer frame of mind to discuss it.

When the criticism relates to your team and you believe it to be unjustified, it is important that you become a buffer between negative comments and the team.  Take opportunities to share genuine positive stories about the team and their successes.  Give relevant examples of achievements.

It is important that you do not reciprocate criticism by criticising or undermining your boss with others, or in public.  Your integrity will be at risk if you do this.

The moody, withdrawn or secretive boss

Take an interest in your boss as a person.  A bad mood may reflect a problem at home and may not be personal to you.  Remember that they have a home life, family, friends, and all the problems and anxieties that these can bring.  Empathetic listening can help especially if the problem they are worried about is temporary.

However, if the problem persists and is impacting on you and others you may need to sympathetically raise it with them.  Tackle unacceptable behaviour (sensitively) but choose the right time.  You could try statements like… “I’ve noticed that when I say/do this you appear angry/cross/annoyed, and it makes me feel ….”  Beginning your conversation with “I have noticed that…” and finishing it with “is there anything I can do to help?” can be helpful.

Understand that they may be under pressure and dealing with confidential issues that you are not aware of – cut them some slack!  They may be stressed and dealing with their own fears and concerns.

Choose your time to tackle issues that are not time sensitive.  If it can wait, avoid raising an issue or asking for something if they appear to be in a bad mood or preoccupied.

If there are problems to discuss, make sure you have some possible solutions to offer rather than simply listing the problems.  Offer your thoughts on how you might resolve issues and ask for support and advice if you need it.

Finally, be clear about what you are prepared to live with and what you are not!  If everything you have tried has not worked, it is important to remember that you are in the driving seat and quitting is certainly an option.  However, before resigning do craft your exit plan as described in my earlier blog.  To avoid making the same mistake, list what you want and expect from your next boss.  Be realistic – no one is perfect! 

The job market is currently in your favour.  Employers are crying out for good people.  Once you accept that you have control over your future, you will feel empowered to decide whether your job, your boss, and the organisation are right for you, your career, and your happiness at work.

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