Thursday, March 22, 2012

How to Discuss a Problem with Your Manager

When you’ve been a manager for a long time, or are used to working with lots of managers, you sometimes forget how hard it is for an employee to approach their boss to discuss something that’s bothering them.

For many employees, the thought of “confronting” a boss can be so intimidating, that they will come up with all sorts of other ways to cope with the situation, including:

- Avoidance

- Being a victim

- Passive aggressiveness

- Discussing the problem with their co-workers, friends, and family

- Dropping subtle hints hoping the boss with get the message

- And sometimes, even looking for another job or quitting!

Yes, it’s true, some employees would rather leave an otherwise good job instead of initiating a discussion with their manager to discuss whatever’s bothering them.

Here’s a recent conversation I had with a young employee:

Employee: “I think my boss isn’t happy with me. She’s going to fire me”.

Me: “Really? What’s she upset about?”

Employee: “I don’t know, but I can tell she’s upset”.

Me: “Have you talked to her about it?”

Employee: “OMG, I can’t do that. Do you think I should quit before she fires me?”

Me: “Quit? Seriously? You don’t even know what’s going on! Why don’t you just sit down and talk with her?”

Employee: “Ha, easy for you to say! You do this HR touchy feely stuff all the time. Where would I even start?”

And that’s when I realized I didn’t have a good grasp as to where this young employee was coming from. I’ve written plenty of posts on How to Discuss an Employee Performance Problem but have never really provided guidance on how to have a similar conversation sitting on the other side of the table.

Why talk to your boss?

Why is talking to your boss better than the other alternatives mentioned previously? Because there really can’t be a bad outcome – you’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Let’s use the scenario above – you sense something is bothering your boss – maybe she’s been abrupt with you, critical, avoiding you, or whatever. If you don’t do anything, the situation usually doesn’t improve and you might end up doing something stupid, like quitting or losing your temper.

However, if you talk to your boss, chances are, one of four things will happen:

1. Your boss may have had no idea that whatever he/she was doing or not doing was having an impact on you. In other words, they might have been clueless, and by you bringing it to their attention (in a respectful, constructive way), they can easily correct it. As a manager, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the receiving end of these kinds of discussions. Unless you’re a total jerk, you welcome the opportunity to clarify your intentions and fix your behavior.

2. Your boss may be dealing with some other issue that has nothing to do with you, and again, was unaware of his/her behavior. Bosses are human and can have bad days and personal problems, just like anyone else.

3. In either scenarios #1 & #2, your boss may be perfectly happy with your performance, and you’ll feel much better knowing that (and withdraw those job applications on Monster).

4. Your boss may actually be upset with you – and for some reason, has been avoiding telling you. Unfortunately, many bosses also don’t like confrontation and aren’t very good at it. In this case, you’ll at least have an opportunity to find out what the problem is. Once you know that, you can work on making it better. If it’s something you can’t make better or don’t want to, then at least you’ll know where you stand and can pursue other options for the right reasons.

How to approach your boss

1. Make a 30 minute appointment to talk to your boss. As a manager, I prefer this approach over the drop in “do you have a minute”, although it really depends on your boss’s style. In either case, it’s always better to try to catch your boss during a less hectic time of day and when she/her is having a good week.

2. Decide what you want to say and how you want to say it. Talk your concern over with a mentor and decide how to present the issue in a constructive, assertive, specific, and factual way. I’d even suggest role playing the discussion with your mentor or a trusted friend. Do not discuss it with your co-workers, your manager’s manager, or HR unless it’s a serious violation, i.e., harassment.

3. Describe the behavior (not your assumptions about possible intentions) and the impact of the behavior on you. Try to be as specific as possible. Example: “Barb, yesterday, when I said hello to you, you walked right by me without saying anything. In the past, you’ve always said hello when we see each other, but I notice lately you haven’t been. It’s making me feel like you’re mad at me for something. Is there something I’ve done to upset you?”

4. Listen, don’t be defensive, and ask clarifying questions. Again, best case scenario is there isn’t really a problem and your boss wasn’t aware of the impact of his/her behavior. If there really is a problem, and the problem is you, then great, you’re on the road to solving it! Study up on 18 Tips for Receiving Feedback.

5. Work with you manager to solve the problem. Offer your own suggestions, and ask your manager for ideas. Ask your manager to describe what it would look like when you are meeting expectations. Read 10 Ways to be a Great Follower.

6. Thank your manager for his/her time and willingness to discuss the issue with you. If appropriate, set up a 15 minute follow-up meeting to check in and make sure things are back on track.

I hope that helps to give more employees the confidence to talk with their managers – or maybe even their parents, teachers, or anyone in a position of authority. Good luck!


Gordon Robb said...

It's very true. People build behaviours up to mean something, almost like they can read someone's mind. Often, this is purely basespd on a misinterpretation of the behaviour at the start. Another great tip is to deal with it as early in the process, and try to assume there isn't a problem. This will help you be less stressed when you approach the subject.

Sean said...

Positive Confrontation Skills and the courage to have uncomfortable conversations with a teammate or authority figure is perhaps the single most important thing you can develop... Whether in business or athletics, you must be willing to speak up instead of sweeping problems under the rug and later tripping over them...

Dan McCarthy said...

Gordon -
Thanks, great point! The sooner the better - I've heard it called a "pinch point".

Sean -
Thanks, how true and well said! Just think of all the problems (e.g., the space shuttle Challanger disaster) that could have been prevented, let alone the relationship issues we're discussing here.

Dan McCarthy said...

aargh, I deleted a commnet from Tim G. by mistake! See below for a reprint:

This is a useful topic, thanks for posting!

As I think about the practtical application of this, one potential concern could be the level of trust that exists - or doesn't exist - between manager and employee.

If the employee is concerned that the manager won't be forthright, or that the manager is not truly concerned for the ee's well-being, or doesn't have the capcity to have a mature conversation, or has a history of not doing well with tough conversations..... these trust issues may stand in the way of the ee bringing the issue forward.

Perhaps one suggestion we could add would be this: employee should proactively work on building a trusting (2-way) relationship with their managers, so that when the time comes for a tough conversation, the necessary foundation for that conversation is in place.

Tim -
Great points, thanks! Agree 100%. For the purpose of this post, I went with the assumption that the manager did not have a boatload of issues.
And btw, I'm always stressing to managers the importance of having regular one-on-one meetings with their employees, so that their employees have a forum to bring issues like this to the table.

magnet mailers said...

These are great points!

It's interesting that the other side of this issue -- managers who are reluctant to discuss tough issues with employees -- can have a big impact on an entire organization.

How many good ideas have been put on the shelf because managers were reluctant to have a conversation?

Dan McCarthy said...

magnet -
Thanks. Right, way too many!

Rod Johnson said...

Dan, I'm wondering if you've covered the total subject, or just a sliver of it. Off the top of my head I think there are 3-different scenarios, each with differing next steps. Here are the 3-scenarios I see.

1. "Fear of..." this is the issue I believe you've addressed with great insight.
2. "My intuition tells me..." Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink addresses intuition and how it can protect us and get us into trouble. At times our intuition is telling us not to initiate the conversation - possibly for good reasons?
3. "I've had previous conversations with my boss and it..." Previous history protects us, especially from bad bosses. I'm also a big fan of Bob Sutton and his book Good Boss - Bad Boss. If I were reporting to a Bad Boss, I believe next steps are totally different.

Anyway, these are just a few of my thoughts and am curious what you might believe along these lines.


Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks for the comment. I agree, I only covered a sliver, and the assumption is a somewhat reasonable and mature boss. Although, even with "bad" bosses, if you catch them at the right time, it still might be better to raise the issue instead of total avoidance. But you are right on- let your intuition and previous experience guide you. Good advice!

dan black said...

These are some helpful points about talking to a boss. I think getting past the fear and doing it is so important. Great post.

Tom Gimbel said...

As a CEO and manager of many staff members, I appreciate when someone comes to me with an issue. From the employee side, scheduling one-on-one time with your boss is crucial to advancing your career. Whether you have an issue or not, meeting with your manager will have a positive outcome on your job satisfaction and career advancement.

Dan McCarthy said...

Dan -

Tom -
Thanks. Agree, one-on-ones are so important, and don't wait for your boss to initiate them!