There were problems in the relationship before the pandemic. But now they seem so much worse. You hardly see each other anymore, and when you do, it’s only for a few minutes at a time. Conversations have been reduced to emails and texts—that is, if you can call being told what needs to be done a conversation. It might be time to break up, except this isn’t your significant other, it’s your boss.
By some estimates, people spend roughly one-third of their lives at work, which means their relationship with their boss is one of the most important in their lives. That’s arguably never been more true than this year, when the lines between work and home merged and employees needed their bosses as much personally as professionally. To be sure, in surveys conducted by Korn Ferry, employees have repeatedly cited access to managers as one of their biggest concerns, notes Mark Royal, a senior director for Korn Ferry Advisory who specializes in employee engagement. “Employees are looking for more support from their managers amid the competing priorities and distractions created by the pandemic and remote work,” he says.
Some are getting it; others not so much. For those in the latter group, experts say the worst thing to do is to let issues with bosses fester. They say the arrival of a new year offers a natural opportunity for a fresh start. With that in mind, here are a few tips from our experts on how employees can reset their relationship with their manager.
Create a feedback loop.
Most employees don’t know the boss has a problem with their performance or relationship until their annual review. By then, it’s usually too late to do anything about it. Hamaria Crockett, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach, suggests using the start of the new year to have a conversation with your boss about the goals for the organization and team. That approach helps create a two-way conversation around accountabilities, she says. “Then you can ask for feedback around the big-picture goals, not just during your yearly evaluation but often,” says Crockett.
Share your expectations.
Bosses aren’t shy about what they expect from employees. But employees seldom express what they expect from bosses. How can your boss know you’d prefer daily check-ins by phone instead of email if you don’t tell her? Remember, the goal isn’t for your boss to do things your way. Rather, it’s to create a collaborative, shared understanding of what you both need to perform at the highest level possible. “If your boss is aware of your expectations and passions, they can better help you develop and grow,” says Crockett.
Ask how they are doing.
Hard as it is to believe, bosses are human too. Royal says employees tend to forget that their managers are struggling with the same pandemic-related anxiety and stress as they are. Managers have the same health and safety concerns and are dealing with the same work-life issues as their employees—except few people ever ask them about it. “Check-in with your manager and show them that they have your support,” Royal says. “They will likely welcome the conversation.”
Observe and anticipate.
Ever notice that the smartest people in the room often do the least amount of talking? That’s because they are watching and listening. Experts advise doing the same with your boss. Don’t just listen to what is being said, think about the how, what, and why of what you are hearing. Observe how your boss interacts, not just with your team but also with other teams and those at levels above and below them. Paying attention to those details can help you anticipate their needs and integrate them into your role.
Enlist a mediator.
Not getting along doesn’t mean that someone is wrong. A neutral, trusted third party can sometimes create the middle ground needed to move forward, says Frances Weir, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach. But going this route is tricky. You don’t want to make it seem like you are going over your boss’s head, nor do you want to create a situation where it is easier to fire you than fix the relationship. “Make sure you and your boss agree to the idea and that both of you approve of the mediator,” says Weir.