How To Resolve A Conflict With A Boss

This is the last post of the 3 part series which discusses 3 sticky situations you must learn how to handle in order to succeed in your career.

The first one post was about how to overcome awkwardness at a business networking event.

The second post, which you should read before today’s post, is about resolving a conflict with your peers.

The bosses are a special case. They are your colleagues but with higher authority (at least that’s the way it is perceived by most people). Hence in addition to all the points discussed in the earlier post, dealing with bosses needs diplomacy and tactfulness. If you lack those, you are in for a tough ride.

Let’s see the intricacies of handling a conflict with a boss or a senior person.

1. Ask yourself if the boss is worth working for:
Here is the deal. Nobody is perfect but there are some people who are just easier to get along with than others. You have to ask yourself how well your personality matches with that of your boss. Match does not mean being alike. It means being able to work together as a team.

I have found that all good bosses respect their subordinates and appreciate when they stand their ground. But at the same time, you should be open to listening to their ideas and trying to understand their perspective because almost always they have more information and see a bigger picture than you do.

If any of the above mentioned description does not fit your boss, then the question you should be asking yourself is NOT how you can resolve a conflict with them, but if they are a boss worth working for. If you have a boss which is incompetent in their area of expertise and does not care about either learning or surrounding them with competent team members that’s a bad sign. If your boss demonstrates major lack of interpersonal skills, it is another stop sign.

In such a situation, you should definitely consider finding another position NOW. Why? Because you are not going to grow under such a person neither are you going to have peace of mind. Your achievements will not be credited but even your minor mistakes will be pointed out. No job in this world is more valuable than your physical and emotional well-being. Stay there until you absolutely have to, but start looking, and get out the second you find something else which is ideal or close to ideal. (Note: Do not settle for another bad position just to get out of this one.)

If your boss passes the first test, then they are worth working for. In such cases, you have to do everything in your power to make sure you have a healthy, professional, and open relationship with them. That will only help you in your career and bring much desired peace of mind in your personal well-being.

2. Think if you can provide a solution to prevent future conflicts:
It is very easy to hold a boss accountable for all the common problems people face. For example,

  • “I have no idea how to start this project. My boss never gives me any instructions.”
  • “I hate when my boss treats me like an idiot by explaining every single step. Is she not confident that I can find my way on my own?”

Yes, great bosses indeed tailor their leadership or management style according to the needs of each team members. But you cannot completely blame them if they haven’t mastered the art. They are also learning as they go.

So before you arrive at a conclusion that we have a conflict here, see if it is something that can be easily resolved just by cutting some slack to your boss. This is one situation where the idiom “A stich in time saves nine” really comes alive. Save yourself major problems by “teaching” your boss how you should be managed, than having to correct them later.

For example, if your boss gives you too many instructions before starting a project you may approach them with something like this:

“I appreciate that you provide me detailed guidance on approaching a project. But this time, I want to test my own knowledge and skills. Do you mind if I do my own research, present you the plan of action, and then you provide me your thoughts so that I can also learn how to think independently?”

How can a good boss say no to that! You are offering to reduce their work without denying their participation. You have shown the desire to learn and incorporate their feedback as needed. They, too, want that but they just don’t know it yet. 🙂

The key is to understand what may motivate your boss to behave a certain way. Here, if they give you detailed instructions they may not be aware they are making you feel incompetent. They may just be worried about you making mistakes and not meeting the deadline their boss has set for them. Once you show them how you will take away that obstacle, they may very well be fine with your way of working. Of course, how successfully you execute the first time will matter a lot when it comes to their comfort level with your working style. So make sure you pay extra attention to that first time effort.

If you have any particular situation which you do not know how to communicate about, let me know in the comments. I will be happy to provide you my suggestions.

3. “Your only job is to make your boss look good in front of their boss.”
A wise mentor once told me this when I was having conflicts with my then boss. This is a golden rule of understanding your boss’ motivations, and why they are happy or not happy with what you are doing or not doing.

Try to put yourself in your boss’ shoes. How is it to be reporting to their boss? What can you do to help them be successful in the eyes of their boss?

Below are some things every boss needs. This should get you thinking. Once you get them what they need, most of your conflicts will be resolved. If they are not smart enough to already set these as regular processes for their teams, you take an initiative to do it for them. They will love you for it! Of course, phrase your offer as “something to help them” than “something to improve upon”.

  • Always know what each one of their team members are working on, and how they are doing. Set-up a weekly, formal reporting process – a meeting, an email report, status update etc.
  • Always be aware of possible obstacles the team may face, and consequences. Get into the habit of touching base with them to get their feedback on what you are doing. If you only do that at the beginning and end of the project, you may not realize any issues mid-way and end up wasting time and energy on something which should not have been done that way. Do not hide any issues from them. But when you bring up a problem, do not forget to take with you possible solutions.
  • Answer the question, “Can we meet the deadline?”. Be honest if you cannot meet the deadline, and provide the reason why. First of all, do not accept a deadline which is not doable. Most times, you will be fine with setting a deadline which is later. But you will always have a problem if you do not finish by the agreed upon date. Under-promise and over-deliver.
  • Demonstrate success metrics. Keep track of before and after. Is there any data or “proof” which will demonstrate how successful you and your team (and hence your boss) are? As a side benefit, such data will also keep your resume or LinkedIn profile current. Check out my LinkedIn for a sample.

What are some other things your boss likes to have? Do share so that others can learn from you.

4. Communicate
This is true in any case of conflict resolution but especially true when it comes to a relationship with your boss. Afterall, a small misunderstanding or communication gap can go a long way.

That does not mean you need to be constantly scared or always try to appease your boss. In fact, just the opposite; you have to find a way to communicate to your boss, how you think and feel.

Depending on how well and for how long you know them, and how well you have “trained” them on your expectations, your task will be more or less difficult.

  • Ask what you don’t know. – You do not have the same mind or information as they do. So why not just ask them, what is on their mind. If something is bothering you or making you curious, ask them about it. In order not to appear nosy, get their permission right up front, “May I ask you a question? Feel free not to answer if you have any reservations about sharing the answer”. Such candor puts them at ease, and increases the likelihood of you getting what you want. All they can do is to say no, in which case you are not worse off than your current situation.
  • Set-up quarterly evaluations. – Whether your company has formal evaluation process or not, you should set-up regular, formal meetings to get feedback. This follows the same principle as understanding obstacles along the project from their point of view – except this project is your career. It is always better to know where you stand even if the answer isn’t what you want to hear. Such meetings are also your opportunities to ask them all that you want without sounding nosy.

    I remember scheduling one such meeting when I had totally given up on my boss. I did not have the faintest idea that he was not aware what I work on, on a day-to-day basis. No wonder he felt irritated. Soon after the meeting, I set-up a weekly reporting process, not just for me but for all my team members. He was happy and so were we! My daily stress trigger turned into a fun and healthy working relationship. Had it not been for that meeting, I would have never asked him what was wrong and he would have never shared.

  • Despite all these, when you do have to resolve a conflict, use every single piece of advice I have shared in this post. Stay firm, maintain open communication and objectivity, and show data. Bosses, more than anybody else, need “proof”. 🙂
  • I hope you found out some valuable tricks after reading this post. It takes time to build a healthy and strong relationship with your boss. But it is worth the effort. Give these a shot and let me know how they work out for you.

    Do you have a specific situation you want to know how to tackle? Send me in the comments. If not, let me know what you do to build and maintain trust of your boss.

    ©2014 Manasi Kakade
    Thanks to Varun Kakde for the relaxing featured image.

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