how to have a better relationship with your manager

Your relationship with your manager is a key driver of how well you do at work and how happy you are in your job. Love your boss, and a not-so-great job can become more satisfying. Hate your boss, and a great job can become one you’re desperate to quit.

Having a strong relationship with your boss can actually be pretty straightforward if you know how to go about it. Here are eight key levers that can improve the way you interact.

1. Bring differences in perspective to the surface. Often when you disagree with your boss, it’s because you have information or a perspective that she doesn’t, or she doesn’t. When you’re in conflict, take that as a sign that one of you knows something that other doesn’t, or is looking at it from a different perspective, and try to bring that difference to the surface. This won’t solve every disagreement, but it will solve a lot of them – and if nothing else, it will help you each have a better understanding of where the other is coming from, which can make differences of opinion easier to live with.

2. Respect your manager’s communication preferences. If you’re an email person and your boss is an in-person communicator, you’ll get frustrated if you try to rely on email for asking questions and getting input – and vice versa. Pay attention to how your boss prefers how to communicate – email vs. in-person vs. phone, as well as whether there are times of day or days of the week when she’s especially available or particularly inaccessible – and adapt accordingly. It can be painful to switch from your own preferred method, but it will often get you what you need faster, and make your boss see you as someone easy to communicate with

3. Do what you say you’re going to do, or circle back to her if you can’t. Most managers are frustrated by how often they can’t count on employees to follow through, particularly on small commitments (which employees may think matter less). If your manager learns that she can’t trust you to do what you say you’re going to do, expect her to check up on you more, which can feel like annoying micromanaging. Of course, there will be times when you won’t be able to keep a commitment or meet a deadline you agreed to – or when new information makes you want to change course. In those cases, simply update your boss; if you proceed without looping her in, you’ll signal that she can’t assume work is unfolding as last agreed to.

4. Don’t complain behind her back. Sure, everyone needs to vent about work sometimes. But if your boss finds out you’ve been complaining about her or aspects of work without talking to her first, you’ll break her trust in you. Pay her the respect of letting her know if something seriously bothers you – and if it’s not a serious concern, pay her the respect of not complaining about her to others in your office.

5. Stay calm and don’t cause drama. There’s no way to avoid moments of frustration at work; they’re part of having a job. But if you let yourself become angry, offended, or panicky without very serious provocation, you’ll become another headache your boss has to deal with – which will in turn impact your relationship for the worse. Staying calm is an undervalued professional trait that can have a real payoff.

6. Know it’s not personal. If you’ve ever worked with someone who takes every workplace decision personally – from work assignments to who the boss took out to lunch – you know how exhausting they are to be around. Having a reasonably thick skin and not taking your manager’s or company’s decisions personally will make you easier for everyone to work with – especially your boss. Similarly…

7. Be open to feedback. It might sound obvious, but an awful lot of people get defensive when they hear critical feedback from a boss. If your first reaction when hearing critical feedback is to think about how to defend yourself, you’re probably missing the value of the input, and making it harder for your boss to give you useful feedback in the future. And even if you ultimately disagree with it, it’s helpful to know your boss’s assessment of your work. (In fact, it can be immensely helpful to request critical feedback. Try asking, “What could I be doing better?” and see what you hear.)

8. Try giving your boss the benefit of the doubt. In most manager-employee relationships, there will be plenty of opportunities for misreading your boss’s intentions – or for giving her the benefit of the doubt. For example, you could feel slighted when your boss gives your coworker a better assignment than you – or you could conclude that it was just random chance or that your boss had a reason for thinking it suited the coworker better. Or you could take it personally when your boss cancels his meeting with you at the last minute – or you could assume that something came up that was legitimately a higher priority and that your boss is juggling everything as best as he can. Of course, if you ever see a pattern that concerns you, speak up! But start by giving your manager the benefit of the doubt, and you might find that you’re happier and the relationship is a better one.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 34 comments… read them below }

  1. Rob Aught*

    It’s all good advice. Frankly, I am struggling with #4 and #8 right now.

    I am very aggressive. I push hard for what I want, I don’t like delays, and I am not afraid of confrontation.

    My current boss is very cautious, doesn’t come across as very strong, sometimes seems very timid. Very different from my last boss.

    I know I cause her a great deal of stress because of how hard I can push on business units that break process, make requests with unreasonable timelines, or try to do things behind our backs. Her timidity has caused some grief for my employees and that makes it difficult to keep my mouth shut because she is causing them frustration. I think she is starting to get it but it has been a slow process.

    I have been sabotaged by an employee in the past, so I am trying really hard to make it work. I also try hard not to go running to my old boss even though she has made it clear I can go to her with issues. I think that has made this transition harder. I really liked my old boss and we had a great working relationship.

  2. Victoria Nonprofit*

    Alison, I’m really interested in #1. Can you say more about what you mean, or what that looks like?

    1. fposte*

      Sometimes it’s a case of my having information that my reports don’t and won’t for a while, about who’s coming, who’s going, what’s happening with money, etc., so when I say “No, I need you to spend less time on Project A and more on Project B” or “I need you to wrap up Project A by August” they may not understand my reasons. Sometimes it could be a case where I do share the reasons but they don’t have the perspective I do on the weighing of priorities and don’t agree with them.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Exactly. When you know you’re dealing with someone who’s at least fairly reasonable and sane and they have a dramatically different take on something than you do, use that a flag to figure out what you’re seeing differently. Do you know something that they don’t know? Do they know something that you don’t know? Do you both know the same set of facts but they’re prioritizing differently than you are? Do they agree that X would make sense but it’s being trumped by Y, which you weren’t considering? Etc.

    2. YALM*

      As one example, I have a team lead who is very intelligent, very experienced, and totally focused on delivering everything the team does with the highest quality. When I indicated that I wanted employee A to pick up project XYZ, I got resistance. Team lead pointed out that employee A was not the best person to do the work–team lead was. And team lead was correct. But I have to provide professional development opportunities for everyone I manage, and project XYZ was a good stretch for employee A. Team lead and I discussed all of the goals, and she understood that I was willing to accept something less than highest quality on this project, so we were able to get on the same page.

      On other occasions, team lead’s extensive experience, coupled with her willingness to (calmly and directly) express alternate views have seen me change decisions. We have developed a trusting relationship. If she questions why I’ve made a decision, she asks. If she thinks I’m wrong, she tells me why. If I think she’s missed something, I fill in the pieces. And because we trust each other, if I can’t give her a full answer, she accepts that, and we move on with the work at hand.

    3. Lily*

      #1 makes a lot of sense. For example, employees will make suggestions that make a lot of sense from their point of view and also on an individual level, but can’t work for the team. This is a good reminder for me to praise them for the suggestions while also explaining why it doesn’t work on the team level.

  3. Yup*

    #5 (dial down the drama) instantly reminded me of a former coworker for whom every.single.thing was catastrophic. I remember feeling such sympathy for her boss and immediate coworkers, who was a sensible competent person responsible for giant complex business decisions. How do you kindly deal with someone who’s at your desk every day to elevate a minor issue into defcon one, as other actual problems are piling up in the background? So exhausting.

    1. twentymilehike*

      Yup, I can commiserate. Sadly, once one or two people in a small office start doing it, it spreads like wildfire. The same is true of #4, and they seem to go hand-in-hand. At least around here they do … it can be a huge challenge not to get stuck in the web, or feel really frustrated when everyone else is.

  4. Lora*

    Good advice for managers too! My boss actually does 1, 2, 4, 5,7 and 8! I tried to “manage up” and kindly, gently sent him articles on conflict resolution, fostering collaboration, problem solving, mentoring and people skills, which had zero effect. Progressed to telling him more firmly, “this behavior that you are doing is making it hard for me to do my job, and it needs to stop. What I need from you is Other Behavior.” This was also ignored. Currently he has had three people quit in seven months–out of a department of five. Two entire departments hate him. He’s had three HR complaints filed against him. This morning I had yet another department manager in my office screaming about my boss’ incompetence as a project manager. The last time this happened, I asked HR, “what am I supposed to say to that? I let them vent, I promise I will try to get to the bottom of things and help them as much as I can, but what else can I say? ‘Yes, you’re right, my boss is a horse’s butt?'” If roles were reversed, he’d have been let go after the second HR complaint. I know his manager is embarrassed of him, but I guess not enough to fire him.

    1. fposte*

      On the one hand, it sounds like he sucks. On the other hand, I would really not advise unsolicitedly sending, however kindly, articles (it sounds like multiple times to boot) on improving management to one’s boss. In general, I’d say the same about a firm statement to your supervisor about what you need from him and how he should behave, but that sounds like it was an act of desperation.

      1. Lora*

        Yeah, I tried to send the articles in terms of, “hey, I saw this on LinkedIn and thought it was great!” Then, “here is this article/book that I found really helpful as a manager, thought you might be able to use it with (situation he had complained to me about).” Then the complaints to HR and other department managers venting to me started, and got to the point that every meeting I sat in on his behalf involved someone letting me have it with both barrels because of something he’d said that upset them. That was when I had a Serious Talk about how we need to collaborate and build relationships with other groups to accomplish stuff, what their expectations are, what my expectations were of my previous manager (who had been successful in the role and was preparing to retire), and how that manager could maybe be a role model for him.

        In general I agree with you–and I’ve gotten along at least politely enough with all the managers I’ve had since I was 16. Some have become great mentors and friends. This one, bless his heart, is a real piece of work.

        But yeah, I am circulating resumes and looking…

        1. fposte*

          Sounds like the right call. I just figured that since this was based on a list of “How to have a better relationship with your manager” it was worth pointing out that this isn’t usually one of them :-).

        2. Not So NewReader*

          Uh. Maybe I am missing something. But why is everyone complaining to you? Not trying to be snarky- but it seems that they should tell someone who can do something about it.

          I can see sharing articles with a boss- I have been there done that. This guy is not going to get the message. A good boss would have realized by now and implemented some of the ideas or crafted some of his own ideas.

          I would seriously consider redirecting the complainers to someone who can do something. And I would make sure that I was not compulsively covering for my boss. I find that I do little things with no thought, later realizing that I am allowing the boss to continue making the same poor choices.

          It sounds to me like you are doing his work plus your own. That must be exhausting.

          1. Lora*

            “Uh. Maybe I am missing something. But why is everyone complaining to you? Not trying to be snarky- but it seems that they should tell someone who can do something about it.”
            THANK YOU! Yes, yes they should. A couple of em have. By no means all the ones that complain. :/

            “It sounds to me like you are doing his work plus your own. ”
            Eh, it’s more like I am doing the work of two or three because so many people have quit, and then I spend about 2 hours/day providing tea and sympathy to whomever is angry. Yes, it is exhausting–thank you for saying that!

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Whoa, wait — you’re spending 2 hours a day providing sympathy to people while you’re at work? Why, as opposed to dealing with the problem in a different way?

              1. Lora*

                It’s like this: Other Department Manager who is our Internal Customer walks into my office, with an initial question like, “what is the status of Project?”
                Me: Hmm, I’m not sure who in our group has that project, but I will contact my boss and find out for you, just a minute.
                ODM: Your boss is Jerkface, right?
                Me: Yes.
                ODM: I already talked to Jerkface! I can’t get a straight answer out of him! I asked him weeks ago and it’s due yesterday and [hour-long breathless rant about Jerkface’s many failings].
                Me: That sounds terrible. I’m sorry. I’ll see what I can do about that. Oh, I’m really sorry to hear that. That sounds very frustrating. *tsk* Have you considered talking to Senior Jerkface? He might be able to do something. I see. I can do X, Y and Z and see if that helps. OK. OK. I’ll be sure to CC you on the communications. Great. Thanks for letting me know. Talk to you later.
                Me to Jerkface: ODM was concerned about the status of Project. He needs you to communicate with him right away. He was quite upset. I did X, Y and Z, but here is a way Previous Job approached this issue, and it worked well.
                Jerkface: That guy’s an idiot.
                Me: Well, we are the brilliant experts who are helping him, right?
                Jerkface: Yeah…I’ll take care of it…
                Me: What about Idea from Previous Job? Can we try that?
                Jerkface: I never did that before. It sounds stupid. I don’t think it will work.
                Me: What we are doing now is not working either. What else do you suggest?
                Jerkface: Ask someone else. Senior people aren’t supposed to have ideas. (Yes, he said this)

                Lather, rinse, repeat with a different ODM. If they come back a second time, it ends with, “I really think you should talk to Senior Jerkface about this, I’m sorry, I’m kind of pressed for time now–let me just help you with Project?” But there are a lot of internal customers/ODMs, and Senior Jerkface doesn’t often help them either. Which makes every Project a struggle to re-establish credibility, trust, etc. in our dept.

                1. YALM*

                  Two suggestions. Skip all of the banter that you’re using in an attempt to deflect or placate the OMDs. It won’t help. It just muddies the water. Jerkface, Senior Jerkface, and the OMDs need to fight it out. Point, and walk away. Also, that whole back in the old days/at my old job/when I played pro ball shtick is really, really annoying. Please stop doing that at the office.

          2. QualityControlFreak*

            Having worked front desk reception for several years (and yes, I still cover the front desk for an hour or more on a daily basis), I can tell you that my experience is that many complainers just want to complain. They don’t want to talk to someone who can do something, because the people who can are higher on the food chain than they are, and they perceive the receptionist as lower – hence, safe to browbeat. Usually this is simply a matter of letting them vent and making calm and reasonable suggestions for resolution. I actually enjoy working reception – I love it when a customer comes in with a problem or complaint and leaves happy!

    2. The IT Manager*

      I’m confused by your comment. Are you saying he doesn’t do 1, 2, 4, 5,7 and 8 well? Because for example, #2 is Respect your manager’s communication preferences. Does he not respect his boss’s prefered comm method and you try to encourage him to? Or does he not use your preferred communication method and you try to make him use yours?

      1. Lora*

        “Does he not respect his boss’s prefered comm method and you try to encourage him to?”
        This. Also our internal customers’ preferred comm method. We’ve had internal customers specifically ask for email updates and simple summary memos rather than PowerPoints in 6-pt font. He insists on having weekly meetings (which they don’t attend) and the PowerPoint thing instead, even after they’ve complained to him.

  5. Katie the Fed*

    I’ll add one:

    Let things drop.

    If I’ve made a decision and you don’t like it, you might ask me why. I will almost always explain why, to the best of my ability (given confidentiality, etc). If you keep complaining about it, you’re going to get on my nerves. Badly. And complaining about things I can’t fix – also not helpful. I know the way the employer chooses to do some things is backwards. But I can’t fix it. I wish I could. I can’t. So please let some things go. I have a chronic complainer on my team and he’s just so draining to be around. I dread having to talk to him.

    1. Jessa*

      Sometimes you need to take the chronic complainer and sit them down and explain “things are not going to change. No matter how much you complain.” And sometimes you may actually have to give them a reason. Even if you don’t want to, unless it’s confidential sometimes some people just cannot get off something unless they’re bashed over the head with NO.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        I give reasons when I can. I try to make sure to explain why I’m doing what I’m doing, and what goes into my decisionmaking.

        But yeah I might need to get a little firmer with my problem child and explain that we’ve exhausted the subject and it’s not going to change.

        1. fposte*

          And also you’re adding to the “how to have a better relationship with your manager” thread, so it’s appropriate to focus on that perspective.

    2. YALM*

      Misery. If after a direct conversation about reality and a little cooling off time they can’t let it go, those people become former employees. This, to my mind, is a well-defined sub-category of Drama. It’s a management black hole.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        Ah I wish they could become former employees. It’s terribly hard to fire people in federal government for workplace annoyances.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      This is where it is handy to remember “we are compensated, in part for our willingness to get along with others.”
      Your subordinate is not the only one “suffering” with crazy rules or situations. Everyone around him is, too. They have all developed coping mechanisms, why can’t he? The job is what it is.
      He isn’t just making the work day harder, he is also subtly undermining the work effort and moral.

      I noticed a while ago, that the people who complain the most do the LEAST to help solve problems that can be fixed. I really believe we have a finite amount of energy- we can use it for complaining or we can use it for making doable improvements. We can’t do both.

      I hope this doesn’t read badly– I have worked with too many complainers. They really ruin a work place. I know what you are saying…

      1. Katie the Fed*

        Oh this is very helpful, thank you. It’s a good perspective. We work for the damned government – of COURSE there are stupid rules, bureaucracies, and inefficiencies. That’s what we do best! If you can’t handle it you should probably seek employment elsewhere.

    4. Lily*

      I didn’t realize I was doing this to my boss about a particular issue until I had an employee do this to me. My boss just listened patiently without replying each time. Eventually I got the message. I don’t know if I can do that though!

      1. Katie the Fed*

        One of the things I love most about management is figuring out what drives different people, and what they need. I think a lot of people just want to feel heard, and feel like you respect their perspective, even if you can’t fix whatever the problem is.

        Others I think need a slap upside the head. But that’s frowned upon.

        1. Lily*

          you’re right, each person is unique. I started out thinking that treating everyone alike was the ultimate in fairness and now I am treating people as individuals, more and more, but I need reminders of that. Thanks!

          Some need more than we can or want to offer.

  6. Anonymous*

    “I noticed a while ago, that the people who complain the most do the LEAST to help solve problems that can be fixed. I really believe we have a finite amount of energy- we can use it for complaining or we can use it for making doable improvements. We can’t do both.”

    I don’t agree with this at all. I complain about things all the time, but that is the first step in fixing them – to identify that there is a problem. And I have been very successful at changing deeply entrenched inefficiences in a global organization from a relatively low level position.

    Your comment makes me think of whiners. Whiners are the ones who tend to just shoot their mouths off without doing anything to address the problem. I think complaining is different than whining. Think about addressing a customer service issue – complaining about the problem without whining can lead to a sucessful resolution of the issue. Not complaining isn’t going to get you anything.

  7. Lily*

    The combination of #3 or #7 AND #5, #6 or #8 is extremely nervewracking. Then you have an employee who is not doing her job, but feedback makes things worse. Does anyone have any stories of turning such people around?

    How do you probe about such qualities in the interview?

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