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At least half of all employees have quit a job at some point because of their supervisor. People complain of bosses who bully them, micromanage, steal credit, hoard information, and otherwise make them unhappy—which threatens their productivity and the organization’s success.
But don’t despair if you don’t get along with your boss. This article lays out steps you can take to improve the situation:Practice empathy.
Behavioral research and neuroscience suggest that being mindful of the pressures on your boss and responding empathetically can trigger reciprocal support.Examine your role.
Consider how you might be contributing to lớn a negative dynamic, & seek training or advice to lớn help you change your behavior.Talk khổng lồ your boss.
Start by asking how you can improve your performance & the relationship. If that isn’t fruitful, launch a frank conversation about the dysfunction in your interactions.Go to lớn HR.
As a last resort—and only if you have evidence khổng lồ show that your quái dị is unfit—file a formal complaint.Leave.
If you see no potential for change, it’s probably time to lớn start job hunting.
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Stacey really loved her job at a đứng đầu tech company—that is, until her quái dị left for another firm. The new manager, Peter, seemed to dislike pretty much everyone on the team he had inherited, regardless of individual or collective performance. He was aloof, prone khổng lồ micromanaging, và apt khổng lồ write off any project that wasn’t his brainchild. Within a year he had replaced a number of Stacey’s colleagues.
At first Stacey (whose name, lượt thích others in this article, has been changed khổng lồ protect her confidentiality) tried to win her new boss’s trust & respect by asking for his feedback & guidance. But Peter was unresponsive. Despite her best efforts, Stacey couldn’t make the relationship click. When, several months in, she finally decided khổng lồ approach HR about the problem, she got nothing more than sympathy. The firm was not willing khổng lồ sanction Peter, because his unit’s performance had not materially deteriorated & no one else had lodged a complaint.
Unable khổng lồ escape or change the dynamic with Peter, Stacey felt stressed, depressed, and increasingly unable to bởi good work. She worried that the only way out was khổng lồ leave the company she loved.
Stacey’s situation is not uncommon. According lớn the most recent Gallup “State of the Global Workplace” study, half of all employees in the United States have quit jobs at some point in their careers in order to lớn get away from their bosses. The figures are similar or even higher for workers in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
The same survey, consistent with previous ones, also shows a clear correlation between an employee’s engagement (that is, motivation và effort to achieve organizational goals) & his or her relationship with the boss. While 77% of employees who said they were engaged at work described interactions with their managers in positive terms (for example, “my supervisor focuses on my strengths”), only 23% of those who were “not engaged” & a mere 4% of the “actively disengaged” did the same. This is worrying because research has shown that an engaged workforce is a key driver of organizational success, & yet according khổng lồ Gallup, only 13% of employees worldwide fall into that category.
What are the “bad” bosses doing? Frequently cited grievances include micromanaging, bullying, avoiding conflict, ducking decisions, stealing credit, shifting blame, hoarding information, failing khổng lồ listen, setting a poor example, slacking, and not developing staff. Such dysfunctional behavior would make anyone unhappy and unproductive. However, whatever sins your trùm cuối commits, managing your relationship with him or her is a critical part of your job. Doing it well is a key indicator of how effective you are.
In my work as a researcher, management coach, and psychoanalyst, I have spent many decades working with senior and high-potential executives to help them resolve dysfunctional dynamics with their managers. This article explores the options available lớn anyone in the same predicament. Much of it will feel lượt thích common sense. But I have found that people often forget that it’s in their power lớn improve bad situations, so having the options systematically laid out can be very helpful.
The first step is khổng lồ consider the external pressures your manager is under. Remember, most bad bosses are not inherently bad people; they’re good people with weaknesses that can be exacerbated by the pressure to lead & deliver results. So it’s important to lớn consider not just how they act but why they’re acting that way.
Research has shown time và again that practicing empathy can be a game changer in difficult boss-subordinate relationships, và not just as a top-down phenomenon. Experts such as Stephen Covey and Daniel Goleman emphasize the importance of using this key aspect of emotional intelligence to lớn manage up. Neuroscience also suggests that it’s an effective strategy, since mirror neurons in the human brain naturally prompt people lớn reciprocate behaviors. Bottom line: If you work on empathizing with your boss, chances are he or she will start empathizing with you, which will benefit everyone.
Most bad bosses are not bad people; they’re good people with certain weaknesses.
It may seem difficult to lớn feel for a manager who isn’t giving you what you need or whom you actively dislike. But as Goleman showed years ago, empathy can be learned. Và recent research from other scholars, including experts at the Menninger Clinic, suggests that if you practice empathy consciously, your perceptions of others’ feelings will be more accurate.
I recall the case of George, a sales manager in a big U.S. Firm, who had been going out of his way lớn please his boss, Abby—to no avail. George was extremely frustrated by Abby’s lack of attention and support until a colleague told him to lớn imagine being in the boss’s shoes. George knew that Abby’s own manager was a real taskmaster, famous for setting impossible stretch goals. Once George took that into account, he realized that Abby was not deliberately ignoring him; she simply didn’t have time lớn be supportive, as she was working on several important new business initiatives at once.
Although it may be a conscious exercise, a display of empathy is still best delivered in an informal setting. You don’t make an appointment; instead you look for the right moment when the other person will be receptive to your efforts. In George’s case it came on a shared business trip to lớn some high-profile accounts in Singapore. Over dinner the first day, he carefully offered Abby an opportunity to xuất hiện up about the pressures she felt by asking how the new business projects in mainland đài loan trung quốc were coming along.
Abby turned out to be only too ready to mô tả her stresses & frustrations, and the exchange marked a turning point in what eventually became a very satisfactory working relationship between the two. George worried less about the attention he was (or wasn’t) getting, và Abby seemed readier to listen lớn his problems.
Consider Your Role
The second step is khổng lồ look at yourself. In my experience, people who struggle to work well with their bosses are nearly always part of the problem themselves: Their behavior is in some way preventing them from being recognized and valued. This probably isn’t what you want lớn hear, but by acknowledging that you might be doing something wrong, figuring out what it is, và adjusting accordingly, you might be able khổng lồ salvage the relationship.
Start with some introspection. Consider, as objectively as you can, any criticisms your monster has offered. In what areas vì you need to lớn improve? What aspects of your behavior or output đầu ra might irk him or her?
Also ask yourself what might make your personalities clash. I often find after a fairly short discussion with clients that their managers are “transferential figures,” representing authority figures from the past with whom the clients have unresolved issues. Transference of this kind has a powerful influence on behavior và should always be explicitly considered in figuring out dysfunctions in any boss-subordinate relationship.
One client, for example, told me that her quái thú reminded her of a primary school teacher who had bullied her & whom she had never been able lớn please. The two resembled each other physically and shared a similar peremptory manner of communicating.
When we surface transference, people can usually take steps to correct for it. After our sessions, my client reported that she found it easier to lớn step back and separate her past resentments from her present reactions and view her boss’s comments in a positive light.
Next, observe & seek advice from colleagues who work successfully with your boss. Try to lớn understand his or her preferences, quirks, & hot buttons, & get some pointers on how you might vày things differently. When you approach colleagues, though, make sure lớn frame any questions carefully. For instance, instead of asking a coworker why the monster always interrupts you when you speak, ask the person “How bởi you know whether to lớn speak up or not? How can you tell when the quái thú does or doesn’t want input? How vày you express disagreement?”
Also take advantage of group training programs to get advice from peers. I remember the case of Tom, who, during a leadership development workshop, was asked (like everyone else in his small group) to present an issue that was troubling him. He confessed that he needed lớn improve his relationship with his boss; whatever he did, it never seemed good enough. His peers were frank in their responses. They said that he often sounded muddled in meetings when trying lớn explain his business unit goals and that he seemed khổng lồ be doing a poor job of empowering his direct reports. In the view of his colleagues, this was why the trùm cuối was dissatisfied with Tom’s performance.
They suggested he spend more time rehearsing and framing his presentations and, in particular, work on proposing less generic goals và identifying measures of success. They also recommended that he have his subordinates copresent with him and make reports on their own. Tom asked a few clarifying questions and left the workshop eager lớn apply the advice he’d received. At the next year’s planning session, his quái dị congratulated him on the unique of his group’s presentation and followed up with an email praising the teamwork his unit was starting to display.
If feedback from your colleagues doesn’t provide any insights into how your behavior might be hurting you, the next step is khổng lồ try talking lớn your quái thú about the problem. Again, approach the conversation delicately, framing your questions in a positive way: “How can I better help you achieve your goals?” rather than “What am I doing wrong?” Position yourself as seeking advice or even mentoring. Request a one-on-one meeting to do this, & give your monster an idea of what you’d lượt thích to discuss: performance issues & the development of your management skills.
If you’re lucky, he or she will appreciate your willingness to lớn engage and will point out areas khổng lồ improve, building the foundation for a closer relationship. If your boss khủng stonewalls or rebuffs you, however, that’s a clue that the problem isn’t you, & you need to figure out what—if anything—you can bởi to alter things.
Offer a Chance khổng lồ Change
If you conclude you’re not the one derailing the relationship with your boss, only then should you openly suggest that the two of you don’t seem to lớn interact well and that you’d lượt thích to remedy the situation.
There are a number of ways into this conversation. If you have the opportunity, you can tack it on as an extension of a frank discussion you’re already having. Jeanne, a French executive I once taught, told me about a visit she’d made with her British boss, Richard, khổng lồ meet a customer. The client gave them both an extremely rough ride, which prompted an exchange between the two of them about what had gone wrong. This gave Jeanne an opening to lớn express some of her frustrations with her boss’s behavior, and the two were able to work out how they could improve their own relationship.
If a moment lượt thích this does not present itself, you have khổng lồ initiate the conversation yourself. Most conflict management experts recommend doing that in a private setting where you can’t easily be interrupted and where it will be difficult for either of you to leave. Lớn have a constructive talk, it’s important that people feel they are in a “safe place.” Invite your monster out khổng lồ lunch, perhaps, at a restaurant where you are unlikely to lớn meet colleagues. Explain that you have some private concerns you want to discuss away from the office. If a specific business problem, such as the failure to lớn meet a crucial deadline, came about because of the friction between you, you can say you wish to lớn talk about this event and its implications for other projects—the kind of postmortem that Jeanne and Richard had. Let your quái vật know lớn expect a difficult conversation—one that can’t be sidestepped. If you just say you want khổng lồ discuss interpersonal issues, the trùm cuối may find some crisis that takes priority.
When you begin a dialogue, you may even discover that your boss is not consciously aware of the degree of your discontent. With Jeanne, for example, one problem was that Richard never asked her for an opinion, listening only khổng lồ colleagues (also largely British and male) who volunteered their ideas. When they talked about it, Richard explained that he didn’t want to put her on the spot in meetings but he had no intention of silencing her.
Organize a Mutiny
If you can’t improve things by changing your behavior or opening lines of communication with your boss, and if your colleagues feel the same way you do, you should consider alerting HR và the boss’s bosses to the problem.
In taking this route, however, you need to make a substantial business case for why your boss khủng is a liability—someone whose poor management will ultimately cause the team’s, unit’s, or organization’s performance lớn suffer. You must also be prepared lớn make a credible threat of litigation against the corporation. You’ll need documented evidence of the boss’s negative impact and inappropriate behavior, such as witness statements và examples of correspondence that clearly breach company rules or HR guidelines. The more people willing lớn go on record with similar complaints & evidence, the harder it will be for senior managers lớn ignore or deny the problem.
Lodging a formal complaint is definitely a last resort.
In the absence of compelling data indicating a pattern of bad behavior, HR representatives are unlikely khổng lồ be allies; very often they will take the boss’s side. Maria, another executive I counseled who had had issues with her boss, initially went khổng lồ HR for help. But her trùm cuối was extremely skilled at self-promotion and persuaded HR that in fact Maria was the problem. The head of HR not only declined khổng lồ pursue the matter but even suggested that it was up to Maria to adapt to her boss.
Stories lượt thích that are all too common, & many subordinates who have not prepared a strong case against the boss khủng have ended up losing their jobs rather than forcing a change of behavior or practice. Mutiny và whistle-blowing can also damage your future job prospects. Lodging a formal complaint, therefore, is definitely a last resort.
Play for Time or Move On
If you are unable to change your relationship with your boss khủng by taking the steps described, & if there isn’t potential for group action, then your options become more limited.
In these situations, most employees simply go through the motions at work and minimize contact with the boss. There is always the possibility, or hope, that he or she will move on. But remember that in playing for time, you also need to set a time limit, so that hanging in doesn’t become a way of life. If it does, you will feel disengaged, disenchanted, & even embittered. Và that may spill over khổng lồ other realms, contributing lớn depression & a range of additional psychosomatic reactions.
The better solution is khổng lồ look for another job while you’re still employed, exiting on your own terms. Beef up your résumé, liên hệ headhunters, line up references, and start interviewing. Having a bad quái thú isn’t your fault, but staying with one is.
That’s ultimately what Stacey concluded. After some soul-searching, she started khổng lồ hunt for another job. It didn’t take her long to find an interesting position in another organization working under a boss with whom she had great rapport. Some months later a former colleague told Stacey that Peter had left the company soon after her. Although his departure was announced as his own choice, the inside scoop was that đứng top management had forced him out because he was losing too many valuable people.
A version of this article appeared in the December năm nhâm thìn issue (pp.98–101) of Harvard Business Review.