At some point, everyone will have fractious interactions with a manager. This bumpy career relationship can be frustrating, time-consuming, and anxiety-inducing. You may think that the only option is to leave--but a difficult manager doesn't have to be the reason you head for the 'exit' sign.

Before you lash out or start looking for new opportunities, make sure that you clearly understand your manager's expectations. Often, a difficult work situation can be alleviated with a simple conversation. Once you have clarity, use these three steps to improve your relationship going forward.    

First, make sure to track all your interactions.

I encourage all of my executive coaching clients to look at all interactions and experiences as an opportunity to learn. A journal is a tool you can use to aid this process. 

 Whether you purchase a hardcover journal or keep a folder on your desktop, write about your manager's leadership style and how you react to your boss's behaviors. Through these observations, you will see real-time triggers in your relationship with your boss. You'll also have an opportunity to reflect on the type of leader you want to be, how you want to lead, hot-points with your manager, and also triggers. 

The journal data will help you to not categorically dismiss each fraught interaction with your boss; instead, you learn from it. Over time you will see trends and connections that you might not have noticed in the past--for example, maybe after each Senior Leadership Team meeting, things become more tense between you and your manager. The journal serves as a log to help you remember situations much more clearly for future learning. 

One manager I worked with couldn't figure out why he and his supervisor had so many disagreements. My client frequently engaged in outbursts that created a tremendous amount of friction; we needed to take immediate steps to refocus. Through recording in his journal over a period of time, my client discovered that email exchanges with his manager left him feeling that he wasn't being recognized for his work.

We created a plan to share his frustrations in a productive manner--and also limit emails.  With this plan, my client found that he and his manager could brainstorm and have mutually satisfying meetings without the yelling.

Build coalitions.

Another step to take is to expand your network across the organization. In many instances, leaders that I work with forget about internal networking--traditionally, external networking seems more valuable. Internal networking is all about meeting other relevant individuals in your company and learning.

The goal isn't about transaction (giving in order to later get).  Internal networking is a long-term strategy focused on building relationships and adding value to your teammates. Over time, you will learn from your colleagues and build your internal profile, which in turn could help repair a difficult relationship with your manager.

It is essential when you are internally networking to pause and redirect conversations from the perspective of "why it is good for the company." Internal networking isn't just a means to build goodwill for yourself: it's also good for the company.

 A client I worked with had a difficult time learning from his manager, so he set an internal networking goal of reaching out to one person a week for the purpose of learning more about strategic planning.  Over time, he built much stronger ties with his co-workers. More importantly, he was able to learn more about his own interests, which set him up for a future role.

Refocus your confidence. 

Many leaders that I work with lose their confidence at some point during their careers. It happens to the best of us. To give my clients context and a framework for this experience,  I tell them a story about my daughter's time on the lacrosse team, so that they can translate these types of actions into their plan.  

My daughter and her coach had significant relationship difficulties. She was "benched" in games for no apparent reason. My daughter lost a tremendous amount of confidence, and her skill level significantly diminished. 

Her solution? Spend extra hours in focused practice, even after games.  

She practiced outside late into a Friday night. She rebuilt her confidence through focused, hard work, so that even when issues occurred, she felt like she was still learning and improving.  My daughter didn't see immediate success--but a year later, her skills and confidence were an asset to her team on the field.

A client used this approach when she presented to her manager. In most instances, she found that she misspoke or stumbled in her verbal exchanges. Over time, my client lost her confidence, which made her less credible to her boss.

We used the approach of focused and repeatable practice to reshape and hone her skills.  We taped her presenting, and then created a customized game plan so that she would feel more confident. She still stumbled a bit in her first few presentations; however, with more practice, she soon felt at ease standing and speaking in front of others.

There isn't any way to completely shield yourself from a problematic relationship.  However, there are ways you can take this learning to help set yourself up for the future, and more importantly, rebuild relationships. Experiment with a couple of these steps, and you will see dividends over the long term.

Published on: Jul 16, 2019
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