Manager of Sourcing & Talent Strategy in Advanced RPO.

We all have those inevitable situations throughout our careers when things go wrong. It might be a disagreement with a co-worker or an unhappy client, or a mistake that we’re unsure how to fix. In these moments, when we realize we need our manager’s help to resolve issues, we tend to feel one of two emotions: relief or dread. 

The employee-manager relationship is the biggest indicator of how successfully you’ll navigate conflict. It sets the stage for how we handle these difficult situations and how they then impact us as professionals. Here I’m talking about what happens when a not-so-great relationship exists and the good that can come from resolving conflicts from a place of mutual trust and respect.

The Result Of A Poor Relationship

When an employee needs to approach their manager with an issue and the relationship is strained, two things often happen.

1. Employees put themselves first. It’s human nature to internalize how a conflict will impact you and your career. This typically results in being defensive when reaching out to your manager for help with a conflict. Maybe you aren’t confident in your work or skills, or you’re afraid of facing negative consequences or being seen as less than for exposing your shortcomings. 

I’ll get passed over for that promotion. My boss already hates me and this will make it worse. The team will be disappointed in me. The client won’t want to work with me again. If your relationship with your boss isn’t one rooted in trust and mutual respect, having these thoughts will keep you from addressing challenges in a constructive, productive way. 

2. Managers keep score. Keeping score is about managing in a way where you mentally tally up the mistakes each time an employee walks into your office. What does this look like? Focusing on the mistake instead of the problem. Leading with disappointment instead of empathy. Reprimanding the employee versus collaborating on a solution. 

Managers who keep score of employee mistakes are missing the bigger picture. What’s more important than the mistake itself is how an employee handled it, and how a manager reacts is often the catalyst for defensive, “me-first” employee behavior.

Righting Wrongs And Resetting The Conversation

While it’s not easy for either party to take the first step, it must happen in order to achieve more harmony at work (and help employees develop more quickly).

For employees, putting themselves first might make them feel like they’re “right,” but in reality, it actually does more harm than good. It further weakens our managers’ trust and confidence in us, and often it then takes longer to resolve issues. Here are three ways to approach your manager with conflicts in a healthy, productive way.

1. Be honest. It sounds like a cliche, but honesty is the best policy here. As a best practice, employees should share the situation as objectively as possible, explain how a client might have seen things one way versus another and provide context behind their own thought process. 

2. Suggest a solution. “Come to me with a solution, not just a problem.” Has anyone ever heard this from their manager? First, your manager will appreciate your attempt to problem solve, and second, doing so will steer the conversation to what you’re actually after: a solution.

3. Find (and learn!) the lesson. Conflict can actually be a good thing for professional development. Facing challenging situations requires us all to use critical thinking skills, improve communication skills and, most importantly, recognize and learn from our mistakes.

For managers, there are three things to remember: your role, your goal and that great relationships take time.

1. Think of yourself as a teacher, not a principal. Teachers encourage and guide, while principals judge and punish. Conversations should be two-sided and employee-led. Listen to an employee’s assessment of the problem and put yourself in their shoes to better understand where they’re coming from.

2. Don’t take over. Managers should collaborate with employees. Remember, they’re coming to you to tap into your expertise and experience. Offer them your perspective and work together to come up with different solutions.

3. Understand that trust is earned. Employee trust doesn’t automatically come with the manager title. Employees must feel comfortable being vulnerable and exposing their weaknesses to you without fear of backlash. You earn that over time based on how you handle these difficult situations. 

Having a not-so-great employee-manager relationship usually leads to employees trying to prove they’re right while managers try to prove that an employee is wrong. These tips can help each side approach these conversations in a better way and keep the focus on actually solving problems.


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