There may come a time in your career where you need to have a difficult conversation with your supervisor. It’s not always easy to do, but it may be necessary. Let’s face it…supervisors are human too and they are not perfect. There is no real rule book on how to be a good manager. I mean, yes, there are a lot of books that have been written with tips and suggestions and of course you can go to training, but a lot of learning actually happens on the job. The most important lessons about being a manager actually come from trial and error and practicing daily. Oftentimes, great leadership skills come from making a lot of mistakes, which results in learning what not to do. Therefore, I am a firm believer that the majority of the time when supervisors are difficult to work for it is because they honestly don’t know that there are some issues. Maybe your supervisor is not aware of how his leadership style is demotivating to the team. Maybe his ignoring an important issue is completely unintentional. Perhaps his communication needs some improvement and he could be a bit more transparent but he doesn’t know how. So, before you decide to tell your supervisor about his undesirable management style, give it a lot of thought and keep in mind he might honestly have no idea that his leadership style is affecting the team.
I am fully aware that addressing something that you want your supervisor to change could be a scary thing. What if he doesn’t receive the feedback in a positive way? What if he accuses you of being too emotional? What if there is retaliation? Yes, I agree that there are definitely some risks involved but I believe if you handle it correctly, it minimizes the chance of it backfiring on you. There have been 2 instances in my career where I have had to give feedback to my supervisor. In both situations I had to be the ‘mouthpiece’ for the team. It took a lot of thought on my part, but what ultimately gave me the courage to do it was the work environment became unbearable and even more than that I knew no one else would do it. So, maybe this is you and your situation. Maybe you have to be the ‘mouthpiece’ for your team. Maybe your co-workers have confided in you and have delegated you as the person to make the change happen. Maybe you have the best relationship with the supervisor and the information would be better received coming from you. Whatever the case may be, I hope to give you some tips that will help you.
1) Give Feedback Gently and 1 on 1
The most important thing to remember is to give your supervisor feedback 1 on 1. We all know how it feels to be confronted or “called out” in front of other people. It is not a good feeling and instantly makes you defensive. This is a sure way to make an already uncomfortable situation worse. If it was you, how would you want to receive feedback? You would want to receive it respectfully and gently, right? So extend this courtesy to your supervisor. At the end of the day, he is human and has feelings (even though he may not show them) and he is your boss so he deserves respect for this reason alone.
You also must decide the best time and method to have the discussion. If you decide you want to address the situation verbally and you regularly meet 1 on 1 for meetings, that might be the best time to do it. If you feel that removing yourself from the work environment and discussing things over lunch would help, then go that route. Some supervisors actually communicate better through written communication and the information may be better received if you typed it up in an email. Also, you can combine both methods by simply typing up some bullet points and sending it in advance to let him you would like to discuss those items in your next meeting.
2) Remove your Personal Feelings
You definitely don’t want to have a difficult conversation when you’re angry. If something has recently happened, you may want to wait 2 – 3 days until you can be rational and have a professional conversation. Now, don’t wait a month and then rehash stuff that has already happened, but do give yourself some time to calm down and reflect on the situation. This will help you to remove your emotions from the equation. It’s not about how you feel. It is about how your supervisor’s actions affect the team. So when you have the conversation, you should never start your sentences with “you,” which are emotional (E) statements. Instead, use results-driven (R) statements. In doing this, the focus is always on the team and the positive outcomes and not the negative behavior of your manager.
(E) “You don’t communicate to the team.”
(R) “The team is really affected when we don’t have clear communication from you.”
(E) “You don’t appreciate us.”
(R) “The team morale would greatly improve if we felt like you appreciated us more.”
(E) “You’re never in your office.”
(R) “The team could really benefit from having access to your schedule and/or being notified if you are going to be out of the office the majority of the day.”
3) Have Specific Examples
OK, because you and your team are the ones being affected, you probably can rattle off a number of wrongdoings by your supervisor for the last 6 months. But, remember your supervisor may honestly have no idea so you must have specific, recent examples that illustrate the less than desirable behavior. So that means don’t have a list of 20 things to talk about because that’s too much for anybody to take, but have 3 – 4 examples that speak to the most important areas you want to address. Be able to state specifically what happened and what action the team deemed inappropriate.
4) Have Solutions
When you mention these examples in step 3, be sure to have solutions. If not, you will just seem like you are whining and/or complaining. The whole point is to alter the behavior. So if your supervisor doesn’t know he is doing something wrong, then he won’t know how to fix it either. So that’s where you come in. Come up with some realistic suggestions on how things could improve. You also have to be willing to do your part to ensure the changes are effective.
5) Listen Just as Much as You Talk
After you have mentioned all the points you wanted to speak on, be sure to listen. Conversations are a 2-way street and should never be one-sided. You may be surprised how well it goes if you will give your supervisor a chance to acknowledge what you are saying and add his input as well. All of this may be new to him and he may need to ask some questions of you to fully understand how to fix the situation. Listening is a form of humility which will be key in your conversation.
6) Don’t Spill the Beans
That’s a fancy way of saying don’t gossip about the situation. If your co-workers want to know the outcome of your conversation, just simply say that you made him aware of the issues and there should be some changes. Again, you should be approaching this situation as if you were in your supervisor’s shoes. If you yourself needed to make some improvements, you wouldn’t want everybody talking about it. Furthermore, if you are able to get through to your supervisor and it is a positive outcome, you don’t want to jeopardize the trust your manager has in you by gossiping about your discussion with the entire team. And definitely DO NOT discuss it with people outside of your team. It really just makes you look bad.
So, those are the steps I have found to be most effective when dealing with things of this nature. I know some of you are saying I have tried all of this and nothing has changed with my manager. Well, you have to give your supervisor a reasonable amount of time to process what you have said and modify his behavior. Change is difficult for most people and it will not happen overnight. After a reasonable amount of time, you may have to have a follow up conversation. And unfortunately sometimes you even have to go a step further and involve someone else. But let’s hope it doesn’t go that far and that won’t be necessary.
I know someone is wondering what happened in my 2 situations??!! Since I mentioned them, I guess it would only be fair to tell you the outcome. In the first instance, my supervisor seemed to understand where I was coming from and appeared to be appreciative that I let him know how the team felt. He had conversations with other team members and they all confirmed what I said. However, in the coming weeks he began to distance himself from me and we starting interacting with each other less and less. Ultimately, he made no effort to change his actions, which forced me to get another job. In the second situation, my supervisor received the information very well and very humbly listened to what I had to say. There was an immediate change in his behavior and the whole atmosphere of the office instantly changed. Other people commented on the change without even knowing I’d had a conversation with him.
Hopefully, your situation will turn out like the latter and be the beginning of a fresh start for your supervisor and your team. When you approach situations the right way and come from a positive place it makes all the difference. Your supervisor should be receptive to the insight and want to make things better for his team. I sure hope so!