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Take the initiative and have a tough conversation with your manager

Tough conversation

Your team members fly is open. Does that have to be a tough conversation?

The tough conversation doesn’t have to be tough

Last week we discussed why your manager might be difficult to work with. This week’s topic was supposed to discuss scripts to use, but I realized I missed a step prior to the conversation. This step is how to prepare for a tough conversation without creating drama.  Your manager has direct influence over your career so it is in our best interest to get along.

Next week some sample scripts for your difficult conversation. Fair or not, we need to figure out how to effectively communicate with our manager.

Most of us have wanted to provide feedback out of frustration and not admiration. When was the last time you pulled your manager aside and exclaimed:

  • “Hey, you are doing a great job as my manager! You promoted the right person”
  • “I really appreciate you going to bat for me when our VP misunderstood the situation”

C-levels are good at supporting their colleagues. Trust me, managers don’t hear positive feedback from their direct reports. Ninetynine percent of the time its crickets or criticism.

If you aren’t being told you are the advisor. . . 

Your goal is to provide productive feedback that won’t turn your manager against you. Believe it or not, feedback for improvement can turn your manager into an ally. You can be seen as a trusted advisor just as easily as you can be seen as the pain in the ass.  Be the advisor.

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

Most of us want to get along with others and avoid drama. Managers don’t blow up on you for grins. There is usually a trigger. It is hard for your manager to hold a grudge when you provide minimum levels of professional etiquette. Remember the three points below and you can create a professional vibe:

  1. Show common courtesy and professionalism
  2. Always give your manager an opportunity to fix the situation. Don’t assume they know what a situation exists.
  3. Give your manager the benefit of the doubt and a little bit of grace. Assume that intent is positive, and your manager doesn’t realize they were causing grief.

Why we fear our manager

The first thing we need to do when providing feedback for improvement is to change our mindset. Feedback for improvement from an accusatory attitude will not go over well. To avoid the tough conversation, our feedback needs to be perceived as sincere.

EG: Provide feedback for improvement to your child or significant other when you are angry, and they will probably shut down. Giving feedback to your manager from an angry or frustrated place will be a career-limiting move. Ever seen parents yell at their kids at a Wal-Mart?  Not pretty, not effective.

Assume good intent on your manager’s behalf

No one wants to walk around with spinach in their teeth or an unzipped fly. If no one points out our innocent faux pas, how can we expect them to be corrected?

Would your manager appreciate you pointing out spinach in the teeth or their open fly? Of course. When we mention either to our manager, we aren’t providing the feedback as an angry, emotional rant. We make subtle gestures on the down-low. Only a jerk would shout across the room “Look, every one, his fly is open”! Be the ally. 

Managers are not going to react well when they are:

  1. Given advice coming from an emotional place
  2. Surprised with accusatory feedback
  3. Put into an embarrassing situation

Remember bullet number 1 common courtesy and professionalism from the beginning of the post? Professionals don’t commit the above acts of war.

Two observations from the HR corner

Observation 1:

I have had 100’s of conversations with frustrated employees. 99% of the time the employee is scared to address their manager or their colleague. It’s this anticipation of a negative reaction that makes the interaction scary. No one wants to create a negative reaction from someone who has power over their career. Feedback delivered correctly can minimize or even eliminate a negative reaction.

We only need to worry about a negative reaction if our feedback for improvement violates the above tenants. If we are perceived as emotional, accusatory, or trying to cause embarrassment to anyone, of course, we will elicit a negative response.

It’s not our intent, but the impact of our actions is what counts

We aren’t worried about telling our friends their fly is open. Why not? The intent wasn’t emotional, accusatory or designed to embarrass. It is understood that we are there to help.

Observation 2:

When we don’t provide feedback for improvement, we are unknowingly giving POSITIVE reinforcement by sitting in silence. If a manager has been behaving in an unproductive manner with no feedback for improvement, we really shouldn’t expect them to change. We need to interrupt the cycle of bad behavior.

It’s not Fido, it’s the owner

When Fido performs a trick, you reward Fido with a treat. We want the doggie to associate the trick with the treat, so the behavior continues. When we see a bad Fido jumping on guests, we scold Fido. We can’t expect Fido to stop the bad behavior if we don’t let Fido know his behavior is bad.  We need to interrupt the cycle of bad behavior.

In the same way, Fido’s behavior is usually the result of the owner, your manager’s behavior is the result of our feedback or lack of feedback. Provide accusatory, emotional or embarrassing feedback and the behavior will be dismissed or filed away for retaliation.

Want to make your manager an ally? Take the emotion out of our feedback and assume good intent or a lack of awareness.

Next week, I promise, we share scripts.

See you at the after-party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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