What to Do When You Squabble with Your Boss

UPDATED: October 15, 2015
PUBLISHED: June 16, 2015

Creative differences. Social misunderstandings. Professional etiquette. You know all the reasons things can go sour between you and your boss. Somewhere along the way, everyone ends up on the wrong end of things.

But when a line is drawn, do you know how to reconcile? These four guidelines should help you out of the doghouse:

1. Understand one gospel truth: You’re not in a lousy spot just because your boss doesn’t like you. Understand, too, that your pride may have to be temporarily shoved in a drawer. You may feel like the boss should meet you halfway, but he probably has more options than you do. More likely than not, it’ll be incumbent upon you to improve the situation.

2. Approach your boss and ask for a (possibly awkward) conversation about what you can do to remedy things. “Be direct about it,” says Carolyn Goerner, Ph.D, a professor of management at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “Say, ‘I don’t think we’re doing very well, and I want a better relationship with you.’ ” It can be astonishing how easy conversations go, she says, if you’re direct and forthright.

Besides, as Deborah Ancona, faculty director of the MIT Leadership Center, suggests, you might not know your boss’s true opinion of you. “Find out their story of you,” she says, “and demonstrate that you have other skills. You want them to have multiple stories of you.”

3. Put some concrete steps in place. They may be baby steps. They may be months of baby steps followed by months of more baby steps. But make concrete plans to right the ship.

4. Fess up. Sometimes managers are in the wrong, but if things have really gotten sideways between you and your boss, there are probably areas in which you haven’t been an angel yourself. “Everything we know about rebuilding trust says you need two things: an apology and an explanation for how it won’t happen again,” Goerner says.

If both parties sign onto this little contract, progress is not only possible, but very likely.

Jeff Vrabel’s “Good Boss, Bad Boss” is in the August 2015 issue of SUCCESS.

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Jeff Vrabel is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as GQ, Men's Health, Time, Billboard and the official Bruce Springsteen site, because though he's had many bosses, there is only one boss. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and two sons—the older just stole bacon off your plate and the younger was personally approved by Springsteen (long story). He can be reached at the cleverly named JeffVrabel.com.