by Liane Davey
Your relationship with your boss is a significant predictor of your experience at work. Good relationships increase the likelihood that you’ll get interesting assignments, meaningful feedback, and recognition for your contributions. Bad relationships mean, well, just the opposite. If your relationship with your manager is prickly, icy, distant, or strained, your work — and your career — will no doubt suffer. The good news is that there are steps you can take to change things for the better.
First, consider the source of your manager’s feelings. To do this well, try to ignore the emotional sting of feeling disliked and instead focus on understanding dispassionately what’s going on. Before you even conclude that your boss doesn’t like you, explore the possibility that you’re falsely attributing what is just harried, stressed-out behavior as disdain for you personally. Confide in a teammate or two to see if they validate your concerns, or if they might reassure you that everything is fine.
If you find evidence that there is something awkward in your relationship, look for the root cause. Listen to the words your boss chooses when she talks to you, and watch her body language; both will give you clues to what’s going on. Here are a few common causes, and the best ways to deal with them:
1. Your boss thinks you’re incompetent. Anxiety about your ability to do the job is likely to show up as frustration and nervous micro-managing behavior. Your boss’s body language will give away her concern as she hovers over you and fidgets restlessly. You may also notice that the important or high-risk tasks are always assigned to someone else.
YOU AND YOUR TEAM
Best practices for interacting with your boss.
The long-term solution here is to deliver results and build a track record of high quality work. In the short-term, be aware of any cues you may be sending that say you aren’t capable. For example, use questions sparingly. Peppering your boss with questions could suggest that you don’t know what you’re doing. Once you have a sense of the right path, state your understanding of the situation and the approach you’re going to take. Be clear and assertive. Supplement a more confident mindset with enhanced skills: Seek out opportunities to get training and coaching and share what you’ve learned. If that doesn’t work, you can always directly ask your boss: “What would give you greater confidence that I can be successful here?”
2. Your boss doesn’t like your style. It’s possible that you’re a high performer, but that your boss dislikes you because your style doesn’t mesh with his. In this case, you’ll notice that the boss’s corrections and coaching aren’t as much about what you’re doing as they are about how you’re doing it. He might appear to disagree with you in meetings, but actually just restates the same idea in different words. If your styles clash, you’ll know because even the most innocuous interactions will feel tense.
The secret to addressing a style clash is to find two or three small things you can change that will make a big difference. If your team has used a personality-assessment tool (e.g., Myers-Briggs or The Birkman Method), dig out your notes and see what you can glean. If not, pay attention and see if you can find the rub. One of the most common friction points is how directly you confront issues. Try adjusting your communication style (either to be a little more direct or a little less) and see if the boss responds. Paying attention to your teammates who are the boss’s favorites might give you clues. Another common source of friction is how structured your thinking is. If your boss is very structured, try to meet her needs with lot of detail and precision. Or, if structure ruins her mojo, dial back the detail and keep your interactions at a more conceptual level.
3. Your boss doesn’t relate to you. Much has been written on the five generationscurrently in the workplace and their different values and expectations. Sure, some clashes between managers and employees can be chalked up to generational differences, but some simply correspond to being at different ages and stages in your careers. Maybe your boss is significantly older than you and can’t fathom that you can work while listening to music. Or you’re a Gen-Xer reporting to a twenty-something boss who doesn’t understand the family responsibilities that require you to leave the building at 5pm. The disconnect could also be due to gender differences or just different interests. The telltale signs that your boss doesn’t relate to you include: use of examples and metaphors that mean nothing to you; sarcasm and one-liners that are more personal in nature; and a lack of informal connection in the hallways or after hours.
If you feel that your boss can’t connect with you personally, start forming even the smallest links to bring you together. Open up a dialogue with questions like: “How would you look at this situation?” “What experiences have you had that shape your thinking here?” “What am I not thinking about?” Listen to and learn from your boss and reflect back what you’re hearing. It’s also valuable to share your perspective to give your boss a window into how you think. “That’s really interesting because I’ve had different experiences. My experiences have been…” Eventually, you’ll both come to appreciate each other’s perspectives better. When you feel rapport starting to build, try introducing some questions about activities and interests outside of work. At some point you’ll find something in common to help you connect.
4. Your boss is insecure. The hardest situation is when your boss dislikes you because you are successful, smart, and confident and he is insecure and feels threatened. One of the tell-tale signs of an insecure boss is erratic behavior. When all is well and the boss is feeling confident, you might have a perfectly friendly relationship; but the minute something you do or say hits a raw nerve, you see anger, hostility, and defensiveness. For example, a seemingly productive conversation about a new project might go south if you inadvertently make your boss feel that you know something that she doesn’t. That could result in defensiveness (“I knew that!”) or resistance to your idea (“I don’t think that’s the way we should go.”)
There are very few satisfying remedies for building a relationship with these types of bosses. Acting less capable isn’t a viable path. Pretending to be less smart might work with your boss, but could damage your reputation in the organization. The most successful tactic is often to give your manager a share of your success and your confidence. Find opportunities to ask him how he would approach a given problem and then give credit for his contribution. “It looks like that solution is going to work. Thanks for your insights; they helped me get clear on the issue.” The moment you see defensive behavior creeping in, ease up. Switch to more deferential questions such as “help me understand…” and “how should I be thinking about this?” Mostly, be prepared to get barked at periodically and remember that it’s not about you.
It’s demoralizing to think that your boss doesn’t like you. Stop thinking about it as a universal dislike and instead think “it’s not that she doesn’t like me, it’s that she just isn’t confident in me yet.” And no matter what the situation or the cause of the issue, get stuff done, share the credit, and ask how else you can help—those are tried-and-true strategies for building a solid relationship with your boss.