'I Don't Get On With My Boss - Can I Ever Come Back From That?'
By Sue Unerman and Kathryn Jacob Posted on 19 Oct 2018
In a world of inspirational memes and #girlpost Instagram posts, it’s easy to forget that we all get stuck at work, or feel like we can’t find a way forward at times. Sue Unerman is the Chief Transformation Officer at MediaCom and Kathryn Jacob OBE is the Chief Executive at Pearl and Dean. Together they wrote The Glass Wall: Success Strategies For Women At Work And Businesses That Mean Business. Each week answer your work questions with pragmatic, honest advice that’s proven to work…
Q. I’ve just had a difficult meeting with my boss – he gave me some feedback which I thought was unfair, and I said so, and the whole thing became an argument. I’m finding it really hard to move on from the whole thing, and I’m worried that it’s going to impact the rest of my time working here. What should I do?
Sue: You don’t say whether this is a one off, or happens frequently (I do hope it’s a one off). How you deal with it does depend on this. If you’re constantly at odds with him or her, it might be that you need to take a long cold look at your career path. You just might not have found the culture where you can thrive and where you are appreciated. I personally once stayed in a job for far longer than I should have, and it was only when I left to go somewhere else that I really understood that the previous place just wasn’t for me.
Kathryn: If it is a one off it’s very easy to walk out of a meeting and think that it is the end of your career. Put yourself in your boss’ shoes. Are they under pressure? Was their behaviour atypical? Could it be that you’re over thinking their response? Remember one bad meeting isn’t career ending unless of course you’ve done something that is inappropriate or ill advised. In which case- what happened and how did it happen?
Sue: One of the stories in The Glass Wall deals with a very bad review where the woman being reviewed frankly completely lost her temper. The review was bad, not because of her work, which couldn’t be faulted by her boss, but because he believed that her attitude was unacceptable. She’d reacted badly to some playful behaviour that involved him letting off bangers in the office and he thought her objection was both unsporting and disrespectful. In the end frankly the working relationship had to come to an end, not because of the actual work, but because she just didn’t have the same values as her boss and he had the power.
Kathryn: One way to make it better, is that you can write a note to your boss saying that you want to clarify your point of view. Outline the point that you intended to make and say that you are happy to arrange a future meeting to discuss this further. It’s important to step back, take a breath and remain calm. Do remember that emails lack nuance. You may send it with one tone in mind and it may not be read in the way in which you intended it to be understood. Keep it factual, relevant and give yourself a jumping off point to start the next meeting without any awkwardness.
Sue: What was a terrible meeting for you might not have been the same at all for them. People in the workplace have very different levels of tolerance for conflict. Sometimes someone will get carried away by their own point of view, pretty much rubbish every other perspective in what can seem a hurtful way. Yet for them, they were just arguing hard, not dismissing your contribution. This is tough, especially when you don’t know someone that well, or particularly of course if they are more senior that you. So you have received a knock. The real question now is how soon you jump back up and how you handle it going forward.
Kathryn: Sometimes a prevailing culture is a challenging one and people enjoy the debate. If you come from somewhere more gentle this can be harrowing. Your boss might just have been testing the rigour of your ideas not dismissing you and your contribution. The important thing is it might just be a one off. Don’t make a crisis out of one bad meeting. But if it is the culture then you need to decide whether you can be comfortable in it, because if you’re not, you run the risk of being miserable.
Sue: I have been in the situation, where I challenged someone over a point that I felt was her opinion rather than a fact (which is how it had been presented), I had seen evidence to the contrary. I was comfortable challenging her because I had considerable respect for her ability. However, she was not comfortable at all with my challenge. We eventually discussed this at length as I was honestly very upset that she was upset. We cleared the air, but I learnt a lesson here. Sometimes you need to be really specific with individuals about your communication style. Honest feedback and challenge is frankly a gift. If your boss only ever praises you and makes you feel super comfortable how are you going to progress?
Kathryn: A cool calm look at the situation is always more valuable that reacting immediately as you feel in the moment. Take a walk, give yourself some space to analyse what happened and then seriously think through everyone’s point of view.
Sue: Should you apologise?
Kathryn: Hard to call really, it depends on what happened in the meeting, what they said, what you said, whether you became difficult and just argued for the sake of it. I would apologise if it was necessary but frame it in the context that you’re trying to do your very best in your role and you might have let that dominate your response. If you’ve sworn at them, called them an idiot or questioned their judgement then make a swift heartfelt and sincere apology and make sure it doesn’t happen again (assuming you haven’t decided to walk out). You might think you’ve been honest and spoken from the heart, but you might have come across as rude. Rigour is one thing in your response, rudeness is another. I’ve been in a meeting where someone has dismissed nearly two weeks of work with “That’s rubbish I can’t believe you haven’t come up with something better.” That’s not feedback, that is rudeness. It turned out that they hadn’t really understood what our response meant and they had just dismissed it out of hand because it wasn’t what they were expecting. We reframed it, addressed what their issues were and it was fine in the end.
Have you got a question you’d like Sue and Kathryn to answer? Email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note, we will be unable to respond to every single question we receive, and will not be able to respond to any questions personally.
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