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Improving Your Relationship With Your Manager

Dec 12th, 2018 • Andrea Butcher

Bosses get a bad rap. In a complex, dynamic workplace (and life), it’s easy to blame the frustration or unhappiness we feel at work on our bosses. This talk runs rampant . . . “I don’t get enough direction.” “My boss doesn’t appreciate me.” “My boss takes credit for the work that I do.” Imagine if we took all the time spent complaining about bosses and bottled it—that time adds up. Every second of time spent complaining about your boss (or anyone else) is completely wasted energy and does nothing to help you.

The boss/employee relationship is the most important relationship in the workplace, so it’s no surprise that we spend a lot of time talking about it. Your relationship with your manager can make or break a work experience no matter how much you love what you’re doing. And just like any relationship, each person in the relationship brings his or her baggage into it, and each must do his or her part to strengthen the relationship. Of course, there is going to be tension and conflict because both boss and employee are human—both are flawed, both have strengths, and ultimately both want to be successful and add value.

Your boss is a human being and gets tripped up just like you do, and to top it all off, research shows that 60% of managers fail in their first two years because they aren’t equipped to manage, so your boss likely was not given much support or development when he or she became a manager, So why do we expect our bosses to have it figured out and to consistently lead us well? Just like you, your boss struggles with feelings of insecurity and doubt and is going to make mistakes. By expecting him or her to keep you happy, you are setting everyone up for failure. Your boss does not have the remote control to your happiness and engagement—YOU do.

An important note: There are situations in which bosses demonstrate dangerous or illegal behaviors. I am not addressing abusive supervision in this blog. My goal with this blog is to address the common behavioral challenges that pop up in the manager/employee relationship and to encourage all employees to do their part to strengthen the relationship.

As an executive coach and leadership development facilitator, I spend time coaching leaders through challenges and, by far, the number one challenge to emerge over the years is the relationship with their managers. In most cases, when you feel disconnected, unappreciated, or frustrated with your boss, it’s an issue of trust. Without trust, there isn’t a foundation on which to build a relationship; so, my advice to anyone struggling in their relationship with their manager is to do three things to build trust in the relationship:

  1. Soften your stance and focus on strengthening the relationship. If you’re feeling frustrated, you likely approach interactions with your guard up. When your stance is defensive, your manager can feel this and reacts to it. He or she may even unintentionally avoid you because your guard is up. In the awareness of this, you are in a position to change it. If you truly want to improve your relationship with your manager, be intentional about going into your interaction with him or her in a softer, more open demeanor.
  2. Ask questions. As Brene Brown says, “it’s hard to hate people up close.” In order to build trust with your manager, you must understand him or her—get to know their style, preferences, motivators, etc. by seeking to understand. Your manager has a story—he or she has fears and pressures just like you do. By understanding those fears and pressures you are more likely to extend grace.
  3. Leverage his or her strengths. Rather than focusing on what your boss does NOT do, focus on the value that he or she does bring to your relationship. If you can’t identify your manager’s strengths, look again . . . everyone adds value in some way, and no doubt there is much to learn from your manager if your goal is to learn from him or her.

I’ve noticed throughout my career that when jobs started to get tough, it has always been a tendency for me to blame my manager—I am the common denominator in all of those relationships, so that pattern of frustration is on me. I could always point to a flaw within them to rationalize why I was struggling. And worse yet, I could talk to colleagues about their experience and really blow the manager’s flaw out of proportion! This is normal—we are hard-wired to go below the line and blame others, so the important thing is to notice when you’re doing it and come back above the line. Pay attention to what you’re talking about, and if you find yourself complaining about your manager, stop and ask yourself what you can learn in the situation or reflect on why his or her actions are hurtful to you.

The best leaders are the best learners, and we can use the challenges that most frustrate us to grow and be better. Yes, it’s hard, but it’s also a choice that you always have control over—are you going to choose to focus on what someone else is or isn’t doing, or will you use the frustration to support your own growth?