In an ideal world your boss would support you and your career goals, open up opportunities, and pave the way for you to be successful at your company. But the world isn’t ideal and even managers who once seemed quite supportive can make a sudden shift. For example, the boss of a technical director I worked with seemed to lose confidence in her and would effectively embargo her comments, not sharing them with other senior leaders; the boss of a marketing director in another client company explicitly forbade her to chat with other senior leaders she previously had access to.
It can be extremely difficult to deal with a boss who is shutting you out. They may exclude you from crucial meetings, stop answering or deflect your questions, disparage your input, and ignore your needs for resources or other support. Perhaps they’ll go around you to talk directly with your staff, particularly if they know you disagree with their direction. Bosses may behave this way if they don’t believe you’re loyal to them, if they feel threatened by your expertise, or if they’re concerned that you’re undermining their standing with the rest of the organization.
Regardless of the specific reason, here are four approaches you can use to attempt rapprochement, maintain satisfaction with your job (if not with your boss), and keep your career moving forward.
Revisit your assumptions
First, verify that your boss is treating you differently from the way they treat everyone. When a new VP came in to manage a group of directors at an organization where I was consulting, a star employee became concerned that her new boss didn’t want to hear her opinions and didn’t trust her judgment. In her frustration, she simultaneously speculated that her new boss was incompetent and worried that he would never appreciate her real value. I encouraged her to check with other directors to see if they were having similar reactions.
The other directors felt more optimistic about the new VP and had a different explanation for his behavior: He had a particular way of doing things and was insistent on the directors getting things done his new way. These colleagues encouraged the director to modify her approach and present the VP with targeted executive summaries and brief proposals rather than dropping in to chat about what needed to be done. Over time she learned to adjust her style to suit the new VP’s requirements, and he grew more accepting of her input.
It’s worth checking to see if colleagues are seeing what you are, or if their style or technique generates a better result. It’s also smart to verify whether circumstances have changed for other people if you think they’ve changed for you. Assuming that you’re the only one who’s experiencing the new discomfort — or worse, believing that the change is personal — can make you feel alone and ineffective, when all you might need to do is experiment with your approach.
Repair the relationship
If you can tell that your relationship is not as trusting or cordial as it had been, look for a way to get back in their good graces. It can be important to show your boss that you value them and their leadership, and that you want to set things right. Assess whether you’ve overstepped in some way, or if you didn’t handle situations according to their preferences. Demonstrate your willingness to follow their direction and benefit from their experience. Consider asking them in a straightforward way, “I realize that lately you haven’t wanted me to coordinate with Joanna the way I used to. Have I done something that you felt didn’t represent us well? I’d like to do the most effective thing. Can you give me some feedback on whatever I need to improve so you can be comfortable about my partnering up with Joanna again?” Expect that you’ll have to initiate the discussion to get the negative feedback that no one likes to give.
Don’t let poor management affect your performance
Relationships can’t always be repaired instantly. But don’t spend so much energy focusing on your relationship with your boss that it undercuts your sense of purpose or your performance. Instead, concentrate on what you contribute to the organization. Be creative and look for opportunities to build new alliances with other colleagues to accomplish more than you could on your own without your boss’s support. The technical director mentioned above — whose boss wouldn’t share her input — found another highly-regarded director to partner with on special projects. That relationship began to raise her profile and credibility through the quality of their shared work. Their accomplishments triggered a larger realignment of organizational resources, which got the director out from under the boss who had originally tried to shut her out.
Reach out to build a base of indirect support
A recently hired creative director I worked with felt both constrained and neglected by his boss, who seemed threatened by the new director’s significant expertise. The manager seemed to want to isolate the new employee from his colleagues so that she could decide unilaterally which of the his proposals to accept, without anyone else knowing what he was contributing. The new creative director found ways to speak up in meetings, where it was appropriate for him to share his expertise. He was savvy about suggesting improvements without criticizing current practices, and attracted the attention of someone in the C level, who then began to seek him out, and provided mentoring and support as well as some special assignments. The creative director felt less isolated and more hopeful that he would be able to make a mark and have a future with the company.
Other opportunities to build indirect support can include sharing interesting articles and source materials with others in the organization, offering to serve on cross-functional teams and taskforces, and volunteering for company-sponsored community service. Providing visible support for other department’s initiatives is another good way to get noticed.
It’s uncomfortable when the person who should be providing you with a platform for success is actually trying to prevent you from progressing. There are no assurances that you can get back into your boss’s good graces, or that you can shore up an individual who feels threatened by your very presence. But by using these four approaches, you’ll have the best chance to show them that you’re on their team and that your intent is to work toward mutual success.
Author: Liz Kislik
Liz Kislik helps organizations from the Fortune 500 to national nonprofits and family-run businesses solve their thorniest problems. She has taught at NYU and Hofstra University, and recently spoke at TEDxBaylorSchool. You can receive her free guide, How to Resolve Interpersonal Conflicts in the Workplace, on her website.