How to repair a rift with your boss

23 Oct 2015
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A conflict with your manager could seriously damage your career prospects. Regardless of who is to blame, here are some ways to mend the relationship

Nearly 15,000 people claim unfair dismissal each year, according to the Fair Work Commission. However for every one who is sacked as a result of a dispute, there are many more who turn up for work each day but who are trapped in a bad relationship with their boss.

No matter how it begins or whose fault it is, we are all likely to find ourselves in conflict with our manager at some point and the bad feeling and friction can make office life a misery.

It may be that it started out well - you were singled out for praise and told you had potential, when suddenly your boss becomes more distant, starts to focus attention on your colleagues and make critical remarks about your work. Or it could be that you never quite gelled from the start, and at the slightest pressure, the cracks start to show.

Libby Marshall, Director of UQ Business School’s MBA Career Resource Centre, says: “As the average full-time worker spends so much time in the office, our colleagues play a central role in our lives and any conflict can cause significant stress. If the conflict is with your boss, then it is even more worrying as it could block your promotion prospects, put your job at risk and leave a permanent blot on your employment record.

“Employees in this situation should take a pro-active approach and try to repair the relationship early on. By the time it reaches the formal dispute resolution stage, it may be too late to mend fences as both sides may have become embittered.”

So here are some steps you can take to try to heal the rift:

Assess the situation - if the relationship started off on a sound footing, consider what has changed. Is your performance in line with your manager’s expectations? Have you inadvertently caused offence or bruised their ego? Or could your boss’s behaviour reflect other pressures behind the scenes?

It may be useful to seek the opinion of a trusted colleague, but be discreet and don’t spread gossip. Maintaining a professional approach is the best way to repair a relationship.

If you are still uncertain, or feel the manager’s actions are irrational, there may be other factors at play.  “A change of strategy, financial strain or a restructuring can all put pressure on managers, who in turn pass it on to staff,” says Libby. 

“At a time like this they may have less patience with those they see as less committed. Find ways to show your manager you are willing to support them and help them achieve their goals.

“Ultimately you may need to speak to the manager to clarify the problem. Whatever you do, don’t criticise their actions as it will put then on the defensive.”

If you are wary of raising the subject directly or fear an all-out confrontation, she suggests trying a more subtle approach by asking for feedback on specific issues. ‘I just wanted to check you were happy with my proposals in the report – do you feel they are along the right lines?’

Acknowledge your own part in it – if you are at fault in some way, you may have to apologise and find ways to address the situation. In any case, improving your performance is a good idea at a time like this and will demonstrate your commitment. In one survey of managers, 60 per cent said the best thing a worker could do after falling out with the boss was to improve the quality of their work.

Even if you don’t feel you are to blame, consider whether your actions have contributed to it in some way. Your boss may drop projects on you at the last minute without any proper planning or fail to explain things properly – but could the way you deal with it be aggravating the problem?  Understand the dynamics of the relationship. Could you possibly change things by reacting in a different way?

Understand different ways of working – if you have never quite got along with your boss, then differences in your make-up could be to blame. Different personality types have different ways of working and managing which others don’t always appreciate.

“For every strength, there is a corresponding weakness so traits that you find difficult to deal with in the other person may be useful attributes in some circumstances. Similarly, qualities you value in yourself could be construed as character flaws by outsiders,” Libby explains.

For example, perfectionists can drive up standards but may find it hard to delegate and to cope under stress. Energetic individuals who like to get things done quickly may be high achievers but they risk making mistakes, alienating others through their high expectations, and putting undue pressure on themselves.”

Models such as Myers-Briggs personality types and the Transactional Analysis drivers provide an insight into these individual differences. Of course you can’t ask your boss to take a personality test but taking one yourself will help you appreciate your own strengths and weaknesses and understanding these models will help you find better ways to deal with others.

Stay in touch – in a busy environment, internal meetings may be low on the list of priorities and misunderstandings can arise.  Try to hold regular meetings with your boss but if not, provide regular updates on your progress.

These could take the form of a short email outlining the work you have completed during the week, and the tasks coming up. Or you could create a list of projects and the progress you have made with each, and keep it in a shared folder which your boss can access at any time. 

This provides a reminder of the valuable work you are doing and reassurance that you are fulfilling your responsibilities, even if the relationship has become distant.

Be pro-active – Once you have understood what has gone wrong, you need to take steps to move the relationship forward. A new project or initiative is an ideal opportunity to make a fresh start and provides an excuse to ask your manager for suggestions on how you could collaborate more effectively. Try to get their support so they become a partner in this new initiative.

“To achieve a lasting peace, you need to change the dynamics in some way and avoid falling back into old patterns,” adds Libby. “That may mean changing your own behaviour. Be pragmatic – don’t focus on blame but on the outcomes. You can’t change your boss’s personality but if, by changing the dynamics, you can create a better working relationship, then the problem will be largely resolved.”