Dealing with a Difficult Manager Relationship
A guide to troubleshooting your most important work relationship
We’ve all been there: we take a new job or are reorganized into a new role, complete with a brand new manager. Every time, it can feel fraught. There was a point during my own career when I went through seven managers in a period of 2.5 years (four months of which I spent on maternity leave). I had a rotating cast of people who were “managing” me, but I barely even had a chance to work with some of them before they moved on. My job remained largely the same as each of them came and went. This gave me a unique perspective on managers—good and bad.
Managers have an outsized impact on your career. They often decide whether you get promoted and what opportunities you get access to. They determine your rating, bonus, and equity. They can give you a chance to advance, or they can hold you back. What they say about you when you’re not around dictates how others see you. They are the lynchpin to your success at the company where you work.
I have been a difficult manager to more than one person in my career, and I have also worked under more than one difficult manager. But difficult is in the eyes of the beholder. Some of the managers I found the most difficult to work with were people who others found to be amazing mentors and sponsors. On the flip side, some of the managers I learned the most from frustrated my peers and colleagues.
When it comes to your career success, having a strong relationship with your manager is absolutely critical. So what do you do when you find yourself butting heads, lacking support, or even dreading coming in to work for them? Below are a few strategies for navigating speed bumps in your relationship with your manager and making the most out of this challenging situation.
Know what they care about
So often, when I coach people who reach out to me, they start to complain about their managers. As we talk through it, I will ask them, "What do you think your manager values?" Most of them have no idea.
You can't get to alignment with someone if you don’t understand their point of view. A lot of times when entering a manager relationship, you feel the need to explain everything you're doing, but you fail to ask two critical things: what does your manager care about, and what are they optimizing for? In an ideal situation, those two things are in alignment, but you would be surprised how often they are actually at odds with each other.
In these situations, rather than coming to your manager with a list of things you want, make a point to be curious. Ask them what they are optimizing for. Then ask them how you can help. Seek to be their ally and find ways to align your work with their goals. Sometimes it can be tempting to set your own agenda, but if you can find a way to make your work a win-win for them, your relationship will be much less fraught.
Some managers value being seen as great mentors; thus, they want to open up opportunities for you and help you grow. But if you are resistant to their guidance, they may not see you as worth investing in. Some managers value control and saving face, so any signs that you are going around them may trigger their defensiveness. Other managers value loyalty above all else, and don’t like their team disagreeing with them in public. Few managers will say out loud what their true desires or insecurities are, because they don’t actually know how to articulate them.
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