In January of 1990, I started my first business as a budding entrepreneur. I provided career advisory services to private clients, many of whom were senior managers in their organizations. The reason my clients came to me was that they were at a personal inflection point–they were dissatisfied with their current role or organization and needed to find a different way forward. As we started our work together, I began to realize that often the source of my clients’ career angst was rooted in a poor relationship with their managers.
Many described what it was like to work for a bad manager. Some worked for bullies. Others struggled with an ineffective and mediocre boss. No matter what kind of lousy manager my clients experienced, I saw the toll they faced in terms of stress, anxiety, frustration and in some cases even despair.
At times I was able to work with a client and help them reframe their situation, and through the process, they were able to re-establish a positive working relationship with their manager. In other cases, some clients asked to be moved to a different department with a different manager, citing a personality clash as the reason for the change. Confronting the tension in the relationship in an open and mature manner usually led to a successful transition to another area.
With some clients, I advised them to leave their organization, especially if they experienced a repeated pattern of being bullied and mistreated by their manager. Some took the advice. Others decided to hang-in, hoping things would improve. They rarely would and in the process would experience a significant impact on their personal health.
These experiences were foundational for me because I learned about the importance of having a strong relationship with your direct manager. Whenever I felt I was at my best in my career, it was because I worked with a great leader. When I struggled or was at my worst, it was because I had a negative relationship with my manager.
Even now, as a leadership advisor, I continue to have conversations with senior leaders about their careers. Many of these discussions turn to their relationships with their direct managers. Interestingly, it seems not much has really changed in thirty years. I still hear of leaders frustrated by their managers who are described as being bullies, ineffective or mediocre.
In many ways, these issues have become even more pronounced as we are leading through the unprecedented time we face due to the global pandemic and our need to confront systemic racism in our society and organizations.
In my book The Leadership Contract, I describe the first term that stipulates that Leadership is a Decision, and you must make it. This essentially means you need to be deliberate when you take on a leadership role and define yourself as a leader. Another critical leadership decision you need to make is deliberately choosing whom you will work for and who will be your leader.
If you reflect on your current situation, would you say you are working for a great leader? If your answer is yes, then consider yourself lucky and make sure you keep that relationship as strong as you can. You must also do everything you can to help your manager be successful. They will need your support now more than ever.
If, on the other hand, you are being led by a bully or mediocre manager, you need to pause and really consider taking some action. What you need to realize is that managers who are bullies or mediocre will rarely invest in you, support you or help you be the best that you can be. Here are some ideas for you to consider.
- Is your health being affected? First, determine if there is a price you are paying in terms of your personal health. If the stress and frustration you are experiencing are high, then most likely you are not at your best. You may be consumed by the issues which will also mean they may be affecting your personal life at home.
- Have a candid conversation. If you haven’t already done so, you need to have an honest conversation with your manager to describe the nature of the relationship. Explore whether there is something you might be doing that is not meeting your manager’s expectations. If there is an openness shown by your manager to address the problem, discuss how the two of you will work together to rebuild your working relationship.
- Move into a new role. If you can’t come to a new way of working with your manager but remain committed to your organization, then find a way to move into a new role with a different manager. You may need to engage your company’s HR function to help you with this.
- Get out! If none of the strategies above work, then you will need to get out of your current situation. Go find yourself the leader you deserve to work for.
Your success in your career will partially be based on the leader you choose to be led by. It’s vital to understand that: Life’s too short to be led by a bad manager. So, take some time to pause and reflect on the state of your relationship with your manger. It’s one of the most crucial leadership decisions you will make.