5 Steps to Breaking Down Walls With Your Manager

With tech’s rapid growth engulfing much of the world’s young talent, we’re faced with a new challenge - how do we prepare an ill-equipped millennial generation with the resources necessary to empower impressionable employees to perform their best? In a time where technology dominates our lives, we have been raised to filter our messages through various channels that lose intonation and inflection. In turn, we miss key indicators that would otherwise help us anticipate and mitigate conflicts.

It starts by unpacking our fundamental communication gaps. If we are going to have breakthrough conversations with our managers, we must take a systematic approach to solving the problem, deploying a solution, and maintaining this new standard of communication.

1. Understand the communication method

There are two main ways managers who do not communicate well will deliver feedback: Passive and Affrontive. Passive managers will make you feel misunderstood by saying things in indirect or vague ways, often polarizing and contradicting themselves. When a manager is affrontive, the messaging will feel harsh or blunt, potentially redundant, and seemingly becomes becomes more severe with time.

It’s also important to understand the delivery - how are you receiving this feedback? Passive managers will stray away from direct confrontation, so delivering via text or 3rd party is preferred, often virtually. Most affrontive managers have little sympathy for how their feedback is perceived, so it mainly in person, but could also be in any one of the previous ways. Don’t forget to check body language when being spoken to - any manager who fidgets or doesn’t give you direct eye contact is passive, whereas the opposite is true for affrontive managers.

*Keep in mind, the way feedback is delivered is often the communication method by which a manager would feel comfortable with you initiating a conversation about resetting the relationship. After initiating virtually or otherwise, all breakthrough conversations should be in person, face-to-face.

2. Ask the right questions 

Often times, we forget that our managers are people trying to get ahead in their careers too. They want the same things as we do - to feel respected, like their contributions are appreciated and rewarded by their managers. By offering your services as a tool for them to get what they want, you’ll be able to align to their goals, help alleviate their problems, and further yourself in the process.

Here are some to get you started:

    1. How can I help you?
    2. What problems are you trying to solve?
    3. If you were in my position, what would you do?
    4. How can I better align myself to your goals?
    5. How can I align both of our goals so we both can succeed?

If at any point your manager responds with something vague or doesn’t know the answer, its a clear indication that they probably don’t know what they’re doing in their role or they don’t know how to help you in yours. Exercises where you write down your day-to-day tasks and outline what percentage of time you’re spending on each thing can give you manager a baseline to work with and help you adjust according to their standards.

3. Be vulnerable and transparent

I’m a big proponent of being vulnerable and transparent with your manager - it humanizes you and helps them understand what struggles you’re having based on previous failures or current fears. However, it is important to only share enough for your manager to understand how and why you do your job the way you do, which will help set the stage for your preferred management style and prevent future miscommunication.

In these breakthrough conversations, be upfront about the qualities that make you good at your job and the areas where you feel like you could improve and why. By also preparing solutions for those problem areas, you’re showing your manager that you’re planning to work hard on being the best possible employee for them. (This also works well for managers who feel threatened, like their employee doesn’t need them because they know and can do everything on their own.) And keep checking in with them! A simple “Does this sound good to you?” works wonders for managers who need to feel in control.

If you’re trying to address a behavior that a manager exhibits that makes you feel uncomfortable or insecure, try using Me-You-Why statements in delivering your feedback. An example of one I’ve used in the past is “I feel like a failure (Me) when you send messages that say ‘as per my previous email’ (You) because I think you don’t think I’m listening to you and I have felt like a failure at previous jobs in the past (Why).” These conversations are tricky so trying to shift the emphasis on your interpretation versus their actual behavior will help mitigate blame.

4. Press the reset button

When you’re ready to conclude your conversation, it’ll be critical to recap what you’ve talked about, make sure you’re on the same page, and know what you’re both going to do as a result of the conversation. If at any point your views don’t line up, you’ll have to revisit or keep note of that disagreement for future communication gaps. It is most important for you to feel heard and that your perspective about what’s going wrong is understood by your manager. Without placing too much fault on them, you can use a statement such as “I’d like to start over because I feel like we got off on the wrong foot and I’m hoping we can continue to have productive conversations about my performance and work together to keep me focused and delivering my best work for you.” This allows both parties to start over and creates a mutual agreement to participate in more open communication in the future.

Additionally, you should walk out of that breakthrough conversation feeling like you know exactly what you need to do or change to improve your relationship with your manager. It may be realigning your bandwidth to match your manager’s expectations or may be just keeping your them more in the loop with what your doing. If you feel more lost after talking to them, you’ll need to try again!

5. Break Down Walls

No breakthrough is worthwhile if you can’t maintain it. So you’ll have to continue this new communication style - be open, honest, and direct in delivering your feedback and feelings. Offer only what is necessary when being vulnerable and transparent. Frequently ask consistent questions that can not only measure your performance by your managers standards over time, but can also indicate how these standards may be shifting for your manager. Hold yourself and your manager accountable to the goals you’ve set together and check in often about how you’re making progress towards those goals. And finally, don’t be afraid to press the reset again if you need to!

Creating an environment of trust and open communication from one side by managing up is a difficult task, but is worthwhile for both parties involved. By getting your manager on your side, you’ll not only feel more engaged in your work, but will also be in a better position to grow within your company.

If none of this works, consider reaching out to your HR team or a trusted mentor for advice. You can only fail by not trying - you have all the resources you need to succeed. Trust me.