Do you have a feeling in the pit of your stomach that you and you boss just don’t click? Are you flummoxed about why your manager seems to interact so effortlessly with your colleagues but then avoids you or acts like you’re not there? Do you worry that they don’t trust you or, even worse, don’t like you? Before you work yourself into a frenzy, take a moment to assess what’s really going on and identify what’s causing the strain in your relationship. Once you do, you can build a targeted plan for how to make things better.
If Trust Is the Problem
First, consider the possibility that the disconnect you’re feeling stems from them not having confidence in you. Signs that your boss doesn’t trust you are usually overt. The most obvious indication that your boss doesn’t think you’re able to deliver is getting assigned lower-quality work than your peers. Slightly subtler signs of flagging confidence are being managed more closely than everyone else or constantly being paired with a trusted colleague on important projects. A mistrusting manager might also be stingy with credit and — even worse — with opportunities for growth or promotion. If your relationship is characterized by these telltale red flags, it’s time to act.
Rehabilitating your boss’s trust will require deliberate steps. First, start by clarifying their expectations. A majority of confidence issues I see stem from bosses who weren’t clear about what they wanted. At your next planning conversation — say, while discussing your annual development plan or during a monthly one-on-one meeting — have your boss lay out exactly what they want to see by asking them, “What kind of contribution are you looking for from someone in my role?” “How could I add more value in this job?” or “What areas do you see as most important for me to develop?” If you’re starting a new task or project, make your questions specific. “If I want to do a great job on this, what would you want to see included?” Use future-oriented questions to signal that you can do better without inviting your boss to dwell in their current perception of you. When your boss hits on a legitimate gap, be quick to acknowledge it with a sentence starting with, “From now on, I will….”
Once you feel clear on what’s expected, you need an all-out campaign to enhance your boss’ perception that you are both competent and reliable. To address the competence side, engage with your manager about what knowledge, skills, or experience will be required to succeed. Pair a strength with a weakness. For example, you might say, “I have three years of experience with these suppliers, so I’m confident there. Who could I speak with that could get me up to speed on this customer account?” Although it might seem counter-intuitive to point out your weak spots to a boss who is already questioning your competence, doing so will allay their fears that you might try to fake it ‘til you make it. Similarly, you might question whether asking for help from your peers will only increase the problem, but in the short term, it’s a wise strategy to borrow credibility by associating with others who already have the boss’s trust.
To address the reliability side, have frequent, casual check-ins. This will both reinforce the idea that you’re on top of things while also giving your boss an opportunity to make course corrections, if required. After you’ve been assigned a piece of work, take some time to plot your approach and then use your first check-in to share a quick overview. Ask, “Here’s how I’m thinking of approaching this, but what else would you like to see included?” Once you get the go-ahead on your plan, provide at least a couple of interim reports that make it clear you’re making progress. Be calm and matter-of-fact about these updates to signal that you’re confident in your ability to deliver. Being timid at this stage will only stir your manager’s fears.
There are other dos and don’ts if your boss doesn’t have confidence in you. Although it might seem unfair, don’t protest your crummy assignments. The risk is that you make your boss defensive, which will only set off a confirmation bias and cause your boss to pay attention to all the reasons why you shouldn’t be doing more challenging work. Instead, do be transparent and forthcoming when you are struggling. Your instinct might be to hide any issues and to work feverishly to find a last-minute solution, but surprising your boss with bad news if it doesn’t work out will further damage your relationship, perhaps beyond repair. If your boss doesn’t have confidence in you, don’t try to rush from zero to hero. Instead, make steady progress by clarifying your boss’ expectations, demonstrating your competence, and earning a reputation as someone who will deliver.
If Connection Is the Problem
What if the problem isn’t that your boss lacks confidence in you, but that they just don’t like you? The signs that your boss doesn’t feel a natural connection with you are different than those signaling concern about your competence.
First, watch for eye contact, which is one of the most obvious indicators of how comfortable people are with each other. Communication expert Nick Morgan argues that your subconscious is very good at picking up cues from eye contact and other body language. If your boss makes significantly less eye contact with you than with your colleagues, it’s a reliable sign that they don’t feel connected to you. Another measure of your connection is whether your boss seems to avoid spending time interacting with you — if they walk out of the coffee room when you walk in (or stop talking on the video call when you sign on). It’s also possible that your boss just doesn’t relate to you. This is especially common if you have a gap in age, gender, culture, or style. A disconnect on one of these more personal dimensions will be particularly obvious if your pop culture examples and metaphors don’t resonate, or if your attempts at humor fall flat.
One quick note here: Before you make too much of your intuition that your boss doesn’t like you, make sure you’re noticing real differences between how the boss treats you versus others. There are some socially awkward bosses where these signs reflect their generalized discomfort rather than a specific concern about your relationship.
If you want to strengthen your connection with your boss, start by engaging in conversations about work issues. Pay attention to which topics get the boss’s attention and energy and create an opportunity to tap into that excitement. For example, “I think your experience in R&D is really interesting. What part of the R&D mindset do you think we could apply in our work?” Sticking with work-related areas of interest will make your inquires seem less awkward than if you were to start probing about your boss’ personal life. As you listen, pay attention to what your boss seems to value. Reflect back what you learn to show that you’re interested and attentive, such as, “It’s fun to hear you talk about the R&D projects that didn’t go as planned. How could our team benefit from taking risks we can learn from?” Your investments in uncovering what makes your boss tick will help you adapt your interactions to better fit their style. You’ll also take advantage of the fact that humans tend to like people who like them. To be blunt, if you want your boss to like you, like them first.
Now that you’ve got ideas for what to say to forge a stronger relationship with your boss, you can move on to what you show — the realm of body language. Body language expert Mark Bowden advises that you use open palm gestures at naval height because they will trigger your boss into feeling more connected to you. He explains that when you expose this zone around your navel, which Bowden refers to as the truthplane, you are demonstrating that you have no weapons and you’re signaling that you think the environment is safe. Your boss will naturally begin to feel more comfortable with you. Another option for using body language to improve your connection with your boss is to take cues about their preference for eye contact. I mentioned above that some people shy away from eye contact. If that’s true of your boss, your attempts to meet their gaze might be coming off as too aggressive or intense. If that’s the case, be deliberate about having conversations while facing in parallel to your boss. Sit beside them in a conference room (rather than across from them) or have a conversation while walking side-by-side. Picking up your boss’ cues and tailoring your body language accordingly will help you strengthen your connection.
Broaden Your Focus
Just as your instincts might steer you wrong in trying to earn your boss’ confidence, they might also be doing you a disservice when you’re trying to get your boss to like you. First and foremost, humans have a negativity bias and you might be conjuring a problem that isn’t there. It’s very possible that your boss isn’t making eye contact, or engaging in small talk, or laughing at your jokes because they’re under a lot of pressure, not because they don’t like you. Especially if you’re newly working together, don’t read too much into your boss’s behavior at first. And even if you are certain that your boss doesn’t like you, don’t panic and start oversharing or following your boss around like a lost puppy. Too much unwanted attention might cause your boss to withdraw even more. It’s also extremely important to resist the urge to complain about your boss to your colleagues. Gossiping will only make things worse. Instead of overreacting, find stolen moments (e.g., before and after meetings, in the elevator, before others join in a conference call) to get your boss talking and to ingratiate yourself by showing you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say.
One final note. While you’re working on your relationship with your boss, start building your coalition elsewhere. Be sure to invest in your relationships with coworkers; if they like you and have confidence in you, their feelings are likely to rub off on your boss. It’s hard for your boss to maintain a poor image of you if your colleagues think you’re a big asset to the team. It’s also important to identify other potential sponsors in the organization beyond your boss. Is there a former boss who you can continue to seek out mentoring from? Do you have an opportunity to work with other leaders on cross-functional projects? If so, these relationships will mitigate the risk of being overlooked if you aren’t able to rehabilitate your relationship with your boss. Finally, be sure to invest in your own resilience with chances to relax and connect with friends outside of work. Feeling under-appreciated can take a toll so be sure to prioritize time with those who value you.
Research shows that your relationship with your boss is one of the most important factors in your experience of work. If your boss doesn’t have confidence in you, you’re likely to miss out on plum opportunities or to suffer through micro-management. You can attempt to rectify your boss’ unfair assessment by clarifying their expectations, increasing their confidence in your ability, and boosting their comfort that you will deliver. If your boss is confident in you but just doesn’t seem to like you, stop talking and start listening. Engage your boss to learn about the world through their eyes and you’ll slowly start to see them open up to you. If your relationship with your boss isn’t where you’d like it, don’t lose hope. Change your approach and see if you can spark a connection.