In a perfect world, you’d get along with everyone at your job, but that’s never going to be the case. When you don’t mesh well with your coworker down the hall who you only have to see at the weekly team meeting, it’s not the end of the world. But what if you’re butting heads with your boss?
A positive employee-manager relationship not only impacts your daily work-life balance and happiness but is also a huge predictor of engagement and success within a role.
You don't need to be friends — in some cases, being too friendly can be a detriment — but you do need mutual trust to be happy and successful at work. So whether you never hit it off or an incident derailed your relationship, here are some steps to get you and your boss back to harmony.
Take time to reflect
A good place to start is to try diagnosing the problem. Is your discord based in a small personal quirk —perhaps they talk loudly on the phone, eat fragrant food at their desk, or wear too much (or too little) perfume or deodorant? Or is there a deeper prejudice at work — you overheard them make an unsettling comment or they remind you of someone negative from your past? Whatever the issue, consider your role in the conflict. It’s possible you’re contributing to the issue in ways you hadn’t realized. When you can identify what’s not working in the relationship, you’re able to make informed steps toward positive results.
Let’s suppose your relationship with your manager was damaged in a more significant way. Maybe you missed a couple of project deadlines and your dynamic hasn't been the same since. If it’s something you did, it’s important to take responsibility so you can start focusing on a resolution. Mistakes happen! Most people understand that and have been in your shoes before. Your candor will be appreciated and show you’re willing to own up to your mistakes.
If the issue stems from a bad performance review, remember that a bad review doesn’t necessarily mean your manager dislikes you. Make sure you understand what’s expected of you, and work with your boss to set a path toward improving. A performance review can be a great opportunity to ask questions of your boss and develop a better understanding of their perspective and priorities. You’re also in a position to ask for advice and demonstrate your willingness to follow through on their guidance and suggestions.
Strive for understanding
There will be times when your boss is the main source of the conflict. If your relationship faltered or never even got off the ground because of something they did, don’t assume malice where you don’t need to. Take a moment to put yourself in your boss’ shoes. Are they new to the company? Under pressure from someone higher up? Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries dissects whether or not you might actually hate your boss in his HBR article (answer: probably not!), and describes bad bosses as “not inherently bad people; they’re good people with weaknesses that can be exacerbated by the pressure to lead and deliver results.” Practice empathy for those weaknesses and you’ll likely be rewarded.
On the rare occasion, your boss will be the cause of a problem that can’t be resolved. If you and your colleagues have witnessed or experienced a situation with your boss that is truly unacceptable, you should approach your HR, but only as a last resort.
Have a candid conversation and align on business goals
Remember, the end game here is not to become best friends with your boss. But you are aiming for a relationship built on mutual trust, where your boss considers you a reliable employee and you have the support and resources needed to do your job effectively. By removing some of the pressure of getting along, you can create space for a personal relationship to develop.
Being candid about your working relationship can also enable more productive conversations about expectations and business goals. Having clear goals and objectives ensures both parties know what to expect from the other, and when these are better defined you’ll have less to stress about in your interactions. Even a basic understanding of each other’s role in achieving a specific goal can lead to positive business momentum and boost everyone’s mood, making it a little easier to get along.
As you start making steps toward resolution, remember to manage your biases. If your uncontained disdain starts interfering with your ability to do your job, you’re far less likely to reach a harmonious solution. Identify and focus on positive traits, and be straightforward about wanting to find a solution. Stay professional, and don’t give up if your first attempts don’t produce immediate results. The effort to improve your relationship with your boss is worth it.
If you’re still feeling stuck, request a regular one-on-one with your boss so you can interact in a low-stakes but private setting. These one-on-ones should not be entirely focused on business goals, but should allow an opportunity to develop understanding and trust. You might find you have more in common than expected.