When you work in close quarters with other people for 40+ hours per week, there’s bound to be tension at some point. From misunderstanding each other’s motivations to acting out during stressful circumstances, interactions may occasionally reach such a pitch that you’re forced to confront the issue head-on.

It can be uncomfortable enough when the offending party is a colleague. But, what if the person that’s grinding your gears is your boss?

It brings a whole new dimension to the problem when the person who you just can’t seem to see eye-to-eye with is the person to whom you directly report. After all, aside from the inherent power differential, that person also likely has quite a bit of influence over your ultimate ability to be successful in your job.

Boss/employee relationships are a delicate balancing act at the best of times, with both parties having to flex their diplomatic muscles when the pressure is really on at work. When nurtured and based on respect and understanding, they can produce a happy and harmonious working environment that boosts productivity. However, if this balance is upset, the ripple effect of any discord can be felt throughout the entire office.

Whatever has sparked an issue between the two of you, it is imperative that you take steps to remedy the situation as soon as possible. The longer any underlying problems are allowed to fester, the harder it will be to resolve them. In turn, this could lead to decreased job satisfaction, and perhaps even a letter of resignation when you feel that you simply can’t go on working in such a toxic environment.

If this sounds familiar, here is a guide on how to approach the issue, so that you can regain that all-important balance of respect and understanding.

Self-reflection is key 

The best place to start when addressing any rifts between you and your boss is with yourself. This is the area over which you have the most control. So, although it’s often not an easy thing to do, you need to hold a mirror up to yourself to consider some of the following questions:

  • How well are you performing in your role?
  • Are you engaged in what you’re doing? What is your attitude like?
  • Do other people have issues with your boss? Or, is it just you?
  • Have you gotten prior feedback from your boss? Have you tried to apply it consistently?

When we’re having interpersonal issues with other people, we often quick to point the finger and judge their behaviors negatively. On the flip side, when we reflect on our own actions, we are often much more forgiving. We might judge ourselves by our intentions, or make excuses for our actions. As a result, we can overlook how we might be contributing to the problems.

We have the power to control our own thought processes and actions towards people, so answer the above questions honestly and think about others who get along well with your boss. Do they interact differently? How do you perceive their attitude towards your boss? Are there behaviors that you could emulate to start and smooth things over?

If you’re not sure, it can also be helpful to talk to others who have more positive relationships with your boss for their feedback. How do they navigate the relationship? Do they have any thoughts about how you might be creating issues? Understanding yourself is critical for being emotionally intelligent. In turn, this will help you to have more fluidity in dealing effectively with a range of personalities.

Empathize with your boss

Although it might be hard to empathize with your boss when you’re experiencing interpersonal issues, it can be really helpful for improving the situation. Understanding that everyone has different motivations, and striving to understand them even if they don’t match your own can help reform your perception of that person, and therefore change your attitude towards them.

Consider what’s important to your boss? Is it important to him to stay well informed? Does she have a high sense of urgency? What values seem important to him?

For example, if your boss places a high level importance on accuracy, and you’re not attentive to detail, your boss might feel that she can’t trust you to produce quality work. Or, if your boss puts an emphasis on teamwork, and you’re highly self-reliant, then you might come across as not collaborative enough. As is the case in any relationship, if you put yourself in the other person’s shoes, you put yourself in a better position to relate to him or her effectively, and ensure that you’re doing your part to meet his or her psychological needs.

It can also be helpful to empathize with your boss as a person. For instance, once I heard one boss talk about the sense of responsibility he felt for making sure that the company kept people in a position for which they could pay for their mortgages and take care of their families. Hearing him talk about that shed new light on his focus on billing and productivity. This gave me a far better understanding of some of the stresses he was under, and how numbers meant more to him than just cash in the bank.

Open up a channel of communication

Once you’ve reflected on your role, and your boss’ potential point of view, have a conversation with him or her about how you can improve your working relationship. Make sure to ask plenty of questions and don’t assume you know how he or she is feeling.

Some questions you might want to ask during the conversation might include, how you can make his or her life easier? What does success look like in your role? What feedback would he or she give you? If he or she is willing to receive feedback, provide some suggestions (using “I” statements) that might be helpful for you.

These kinds of discussions can be helpful for getting issues out on the table in a constructive way. Just make sure to watch out for your triggers, use mindfulness techniques to calm down your body (even deep breathing will help), and guard against defensiveness.

Develop a plan to move forward

Change is critical to help restore a good working relationship with your boss, so think about how you can better meet your boss’ needs and make life easier.

Come up with at least three actions that you can start doing immediately and start to work them into your daily or weekly routine. This can include:

Focusing on your personal development – If your boss gave you any developmental feedback, make sure to work constructively to improve in those areas. For example, if your boss values teamwork, make an effort to get more involved with your colleagues and offer up any spare time you have to help them with their workload etc. Or, if accuracy is essential, look around for some proofreading software or spend an extra few moments checking your work before submitting it to your boss.

Attending to your level of engagement – If you’re feeling stressed or disengaged on the job, it’s likely that others will pick up on it. Make sure that you’re taking the appropriate steps so that you can regain a sense of meaning and satisfaction with the work you’re doing.

Staying communicative – Keeping communications channels open is key to resolving any issues in the long term, so even a quick hello by the water cooler from time to time can help keep things on civil terms and keep you both talking. You’ll also want to make sure to check in periodically to see how things are going between the two of you.

What happens when you’ve run out of options?

Sadly, the reality is in some cases that you could simply be working for a toxic boss.

Some company cultures put greater emphasis on their bottom lines than on their people, and this can often result in a toxic and harmful environment where staff turnover and absence rates are high. Although you might want to stay in this position short-term to gain experience or as a way to boost your resume, the impacts on your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing may lead you to discover that the position really isn’t worth it after all.

If you feel that you’ve tried everything to try to get along with your boss and have run out of options, don’t feel ashamed or disappointed that you want to move on to pastures new.

Ultimately, if you’ve done everything you can, this is a failure on your bosses’ part, and no job is worth damaging your health or happiness.

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