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!