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Give Your Boss the Benefit of the Doubt

We’ve all been there: We’ve worked for managers who don’t listen or don’t understand, who are unfailingly critical, ignorant, or worse. So where can you begin if you’re trying to make a case for yourself, rationalize the work-flow and assignments, or raise an issue of vital importance to the business?

Your Boss Isn’t the Enemy

Before you approach your boss or manager, cut them some slack. Why? Because if you start from the premise that it’s your boss who’s wrong, who’s the enemy, who needs to change, then the likelihood of your getting your boss to see what you see and making a difference in the way your workplace runs is, well, pretty much dead on arrival.

Despite management’s theoretical hold on and access to actual power, you have to start by assuming that managers are at least as overwhelmed as you are, whether or not it looks that way. This is true no matter how arrogant she seems, or how rudely he speaks to you.

In fact, the worse managers’ communication and behaviors get, the more likely it is that they’re overwhelmed and steadily becoming even more so. And for “overwhelmed,” you can also substitute “fearful,” “anxious,” “worried,” “upset,” “on edge,” “stressed out,” and/or “burned out” — in other words, your manager is likely to be experiencing everything you are or have been feeling yourself.

You Don’t Have to Be the Enemy Either

When they’re under too much pressure — whether it’s from work or something else — even “good” bosses can act as if they live in a bunker that has just declared DEFCON 2, and you’re with the enemy.

No matter what the role of management ought to be, or how open and supportive individual managers may want to be, they often don’t feel like they have the time to hear you out. They’re dogpaddling as fast as they can, trying to stay afloat. If they have to stop what they’re doing to focus on you, their risk of capsizing the team boat — or of drowning themselves — increases.

And if they’re critical, nitpicky, or overly forceful about how they want you to do things, it’s often because they want things to come out well according to their own beliefs and preferences.

See the Scene from Your Manager’s Desk

Try to think about the situation objectively, even harshly, from your manager’s perspective: They sit in their chair, not yours — and whatever they’ve done to get there has worked for them. So why should they make any adjustment for you? You haven’t gotten where they are or been through what they’ve been through, so you don’t have the perspective they’ve got.

Start from a Point of Trust

Of course, the best platform from which to be understood is one of trust and support. When it comes right down to it, if your manager is ever going to hear you out with attentiveness and openness, she or he has to believe that what you want and what you’re trying to accomplish will be aligned with what she or he wants too.

So take a deep breath, and let a wave of compassion for your manager wash over you. Can you sustain this warm feeling as you think again about how to communicate? Next week we’ll take a look at effective timing and good venues for tricky conversations.

Onward and upward,


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2 thoughts on “Give Your Boss the Benefit of the Doubt

  1. You make an excellent point that reminds us to think carefully about our “approach”. Rather than inciting confrontation, you induce cooperation.

    When someone feels threatened, the stress response is activated. This means that a different part of the brain is activated; cortical functioning is hampered.

    Choosing to start from compassion, as you recommend, is an excellent way to prepare the “conversational soil”.

  2. Marianna, I love the idea of “conversational soil” — if it’s watered and weeded with care, certainly the seeds of dialog and mutual understanding will grow! And certainly a little extra attention to the approach may prevent and overreactive and damaging departure! Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments.

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