Even the best office relationships hit a rut, but if it’s your relationship with your boss that’s suffering, work can be especially challenging. Maybe you’ve lost their trust, or you haven’t been seeing eye to eye lately, or maybe you’ve never really gotten along. Whatever the reason, how can you build a connection that’s more than “just OK”? What steps can you take to improve your interactions? And are there times when you have to accept that the relationship may never get better?
What the Experts Say
Having a positive, productive, and healthy relationship with your boss is critical to your professional success, says Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School and coauthor of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. Being on great terms with your manager helps you “stay aligned with the priorities of the organization, understand its constraints, and get access to the resources you need to get things done,” she says. Work is not a popularity contest, but “the reality is, your boss’s opinion of you matters,” says Jean-François Manzoni, professor of management practice at INSEAD. It matters for “functional reasons” because of the “control or influence your boss has over rewards like special assignments, your visibility, and compensation.” But it also matters for psychological reasons. “We are wired to please authority figures,” he says. “When your boss doesn’t like you, it’s painful.” Here are some strategies for interacting with your manager to get what you need, support your boss’s success, and excel at your job.
Diagnose the problem — if there is one
If you have an inkling that your boss isn’t keen on you, the first question you need to ask, according to Manzoni, is whether you’re sure the problem is you. “Maybe your boss is cold, distant, or a more contained individual who doesn’t convey much positive affect,” he says. He suggests you “try to figure out whether there is specific annoyance directed at you.” If your boss interacts with you differently from your colleagues, then yes, “it probably is something about you.” In this case, he says, you need to ask yourself: Am I working on the issues that my boss wants me to be working on, in the way they want me to be working on them? Have I been disregarding their feedback? Have I done something to lose their trust?
If you have done something to undermine your boss or lose their trust, it’s up to you to take responsibility. According to Hill, “you need to be the one to own it.” Acknowledge that you’re at fault and apologize. The good news is that even strained professional relationships can be repaired. The key is to “assure your boss that you want to work on” things and “ask for help in getting back on track,” says Manzoni. Be patient, he adds — it will take time to win back his good opinion. “Most bosses appreciate employees who work hard, mean well, ask for help, and follow through,” he says. “The worst employee is a gifted individual who doesn’t give their best.”
Align on goals
After identifying the problem, you now need to work on a solution. If you’re “unsure of what your boss expects, it’s time to clarify,” says Hill. “We want our bosses to be proactive,” but the onus is on you to “establish a two-way conversation” that aligns their priorities with your own, she says. “It’s a partnership.” The trouble comes when you think their expectations are unreasonable, says Manzoni. “Sometimes there’s a sense that bosses are not fighting the right battles, so we dislike them.” Instead of dwelling on that, you should try to see things from their perspective. Think about the “world in which your boss is living, where these priorities make sense.” And then “signal to your boss” that you’re “getting with the program.”
Focus on the positive
Aligning yourself with your boss’s agenda might require an attitude adjustment on your part. Chances are you’re not hiding your “negative emotions,” says Manzoni. “Your boss knows you don’t like him. Maybe not the extent of your disdain, but he knows it.” The more you obsess over your boss’s irritating habits and tendencies, the more the relationship will suffer. Manzoni suggests deliberately changing your mindset by “trying to find the positive.” Focus on the strengths your boss has, not her weaknesses. In addition, “do your best to reduce the intensity of your annoyance or antagonism.” Here, again, it’s helpful to empathize, says Hill. “Try to step into the shoes of your boss and see the world from his point of view,” she says. “Understand her priorities” and the demands she faces. It’s important to remember that “your boss is human too.”
Another way to build rapport with your boss is to connect with them on a human level. Manzoni suggests talking to manager about topics beyond work. “Find a subject that would create a bond,” he says. “Try to figure out what your boss cares about.” Is it a sports team? Stamp collecting? A particular music group? You don’t need to feign interest if you genuinely have none, but learning about who your boss is as a person and finding genuine overlaps in interests will give you a deeper understanding into what makes them tick, says Hill. “Ask her to coffee or invite her to lunch,” she says, so you can get to know each other on a personal level. That said, if a personal relationship isn’t easy, don’t force it, says Hill. “It’s okay if you don’t have chemistry.”
Seek your boss’s counsel
“Asking for advice is a good way to improve a person’s opinion of you,” says Manzoni. “It shows you respect their judgment and their intellect. It also increases their investment in you.” But asking your boss for advice or help is a delicate matter, says Hill. “You don’t want your boss to think you’re delegating back up or putting the problem back on them,” she says. “Make sure the boss knows you’re paying attention to the pressures he’s under.” Phrase your request as “asking their guidance” to “help you think things through.” Show that you’re still willing to do the work. “Say, ‘This is how I’m thinking about things. These are the trade-offs I’m considering.’” Bear in mind that once you ask for advice, you have to follow through on it.
Make your boss look good
The best way to have a strong relationship with your boss is to do your job and do it well, but that may not be enough, says Hill. Go further by anticipating your boss’s needs and pitching solutions to problems. This will make their life easier. While sucking up is not advised, it’s “always smart to make your boss look good,” says Manzoni. Compliment your boss in front of colleagues. Demonstrate loyalty to your boss’s vision. Don’t be a sycophant and don’t be dishonest. If you’re singing your boss’s praises or rushing to her defense during watercooler chat, “you have to mean it,” he says.
Consider moving on…or not
Working for a boss you don’t like is “demotivating and de-energizing,” says Hill. “People describe it as a crucible experience.” When your relationship with your boss seems beyond repair and you’ve done everything in your power to make it better, consider looking for a new job — or at least a new manager. “If you can’t trust your boss, it may be time to get yourself out from under that person,” she says. Though “it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to leave the company.” Alternatively, says Manzoni, “you could develop a slightly thicker skin and think, ‘This too shall pass.’” After all, “bosses come and go,” and it’s “good training” to work with a difficult personality. “You will find out how to operate at your peak despite a sub-optimal relationship with your boss,” Manzoni says. “You will develop resilience.”
Principles to Remember
- Empathize with your boss in order to get a clearer understanding of their priorities and the pressures they’re under
- Build a personal relationship with your boss by engaging them in conversation topics beyond work
- Ask your boss for their guidance and counsel; this shows you respect their judgment and intellect
- Assume your boss’s attitude toward you is personal. Figure out the extent to which your boss behaves differently with you than with other people.
- Harp on your boss’s annoying habits. Focus on his positive traits.
- Give up and look for a new job too soon. Working for a difficult personality helps you build resilience.
Case Study #1: Empathize with your manager’s perspective and ask for their guidance
When David Naylor worked at a marketing company, a new manager, Al (not his real name), was brought in to lead the sales team. The two didn’t hit it off right away. “He seemed a bit adversarial and unwilling to listen to suggestions — mine or others,” says David.
Rather than get annoyed, David did his best to empathize with Al. “I recalled what it is like moving to a new organization, feeling like you were being judged, and wanting to make a statement that hiring you was a good decision.”
David asked Al for his advice. “Good people generally respond positively and less defensively when they feel they are helping you,” he says. David told Al that he wanted to help him drive his agenda for the team, but he was struggling with the best way to do it, and he needed guidance. “I asked him about what he saw as [the team’s] current struggles and strengths. I asked him what he felt were the biggest things holding us back,” he says. “Next, I asked him about what he wanted to accomplish.”
The two talked about what David could do, including the role he could play in influencing the team to reorient its focus. “It was amazing how Al’s attitude, perspective, and even his body language changed as we progressed through this conversation,” he says.
After that talk, David made sure Al knew he was committed to executing the strategy. “Every time I made progress, I would tie it back to our previous discussion and say something like, ‘One more step in the master plan done.’ I think those types of comments gave him the reassurance that I was still aligned with him.”
When the opportunity arose, he supported Al by agreeing in front of colleagues when Al said “something of merit.” David believes it’s “very important to publicly align with” and support the person you report to. “So many perceptions are shaped in those public forums; it is not the place to create negativity.”
Today David is the executive vice president at 2logical, the mindset development training company based in Rochester, New York. He says he remains friends with Al. “Our lives have moved in different directions, but when I see him out, I still give him a hug. And we get dinner or lunch a few times a year.”
Case Study #2: Anticipate your boss’s needs and look for ways to build a personal connection
Charlie Leeds, a product manager at Powerlinx, the online network that helps small and midsize businesses find trading partners, reports directly to the company’s head of product. Charlie says his relationship with his boss, Yoni, “started out OK,” but he was determined to “make it better.”
The first thing Charlie did was ask Yoni if they could meet for brief check-ins every two weeks. Their first meeting was “a good talk” that lasted about 15 minutes. “Yoni gave me constructive criticism that I immediately started applying to my work, and we discussed what my next two-week goals should be and how they would play into our larger plans,” says Charlie. “The result benefited both of us: I knew what to focus on, and Yoni knew what he could expect to see.”
During these ongoing conversations, Charlie says, he tries to be mindful of the pressures Yoni is under. He always asks if there is anything he can take off Yoni’s plate. “He’s usually either happy to give me something or wants me to keep going on what I’m already doing. I simply try to make his life easier,” says Charlie.
Over time, Charlie has built a rapport with Yoni by asking about his family. “I don’t have kids, but it’s not hard to ask about someone else’s,” he says. He’s also looked for things that Yoni seems to enjoy doing. For example, he knows that Yoni likes to read. “We both like books you can learn from, so we’ve been able to bond over that. I just loaned him my copy of Jonah Berger’s Contagious.”