Every human relationship goes through ups and downs, and the one you share with your boss is no exception. Think about your friends: There are times when you’re in touch with one friend every day and other times when you barely talk. You might even be so annoyed at some of your friends that you don’t want to hear from them for a while, or even ever again.
These vicissitudes are natural, but when they happen in the workplace they can make you feel like you’re playing a giant game of chess with your colleagues—particularly your boss. Here’s how to cut through your paranoia, figure out what’s going on, and repair your relationship with your boss if it turns out you need to.
Stop Reading Tea Leaves
First things first: Your boss’s opinion of your performance matters—make no mistake about that. But getting an accurate reading on your boss’s opinion of your performance is probably harder than you think. You probably shouldn’t try reading those tea leaves on a daily basis. It’ll just drive you insane.
I’ve been both an employee and a boss over the years, so I know how easy it is to read into things like the wording your boss might use to give you a bit of feedback or offer advice. I can remember once anxiously rereading the notes I’d gotten from my boss after a performance review, trying to uncover the hidden meaning between the lines.
It was all for nothing. The fact is my boss didn’t write those notes all that carefully—they were meant to be taken pretty literally and superficially. What’s more, they might not have even convey that surface-level meaning all that well in the first place, especially if they were dashed off quickly. Hidden symbolism is the province of people with far more time on their hands than most bosses have. So don’t try interpreting mundane workplace situations for evidence of behind-the-scenes machinations.
Be The One To Bring It Up First
That said, if you notice a consistent (and more or less explicit) negative thrust to your interactions with your boss, it’s time to step up and do something.
The most obvious thing to do is generally the right thing to do: Go talk to your boss. But it’s hard to take such direct approach for the same reason that many people avoid medical tests when they suspect they might get bad news. Uncertainty about the future seems preferable to knowing that there’s a problem.
But you’ve got to suck it up—and fast. The earlier you find out what the problem is, the more time you’ll have to do something about it before it becomes terminal. Having a frank discussion about any underlying issues at work is important in situations like these. It may be that your boss is actually non-confrontational to a fault, and needs a bit of a push (from you!) to open up about whatever’s going on. Until you give her that push, she’ll just keep coming off as passive aggressive or condescending. It’s always better to initiate an uncomfortable conversation than wait around for it to happen.
Branch Out And Make Some Allies
Of course, there are times when your boss is just unapproachable. You might love the organization you work for but find yourself stuck with a direct supervisor who’s difficult. That makes things a lot harder. Talking directly to this type of boss might make things worse rather than better.
In general, as soon as you recognize that you have a problem boss, you should probably start finding other mentors within your organization. But that’s especially true when your boss isn’t the type of person you can broach the subject with first. Grab a cup of coffee with other people whose opinions you respect. Ideally, do that before you need to pick their brains about particular problem you’re having—but better late than never.
If you do go to someone else, you should be clear about what you’re doing, otherwise it’ll just seem like you’re complaining or gossiping. Tell them you’re looking for advice or feedback and that you haven’t talked to your direct supervisor yet. If your boss has a reputation for being difficult, your new mentor will understand and may have some ideas for you. If your colleague thinks you’ve misunderstood your manager’s behavior, that’s still useful intel, and might lead to advice about how to open up a conversation you might’ve thought impossible.
No matter what, though, that gut impression that something’s out of whack between you and your boss is worth heeding. Use it as your cue to do some information-gathering. You need to know about the long-term trends in your performance and your chances of advancing anyhow—even when things are going great. It can be scary to seek out news you might not like hearing. But bad news is far easier to deal with than unpleasant surprises down the road.