Conflicts between bosses and employees upset everyone. I know because I’ve been in both positions.
I’ve experienced firsthand the tension, discomfort, and frustration that stem from unresolved issues. That’s how I know all conflicts must be addressed, no matter how awkward or difficult those conversations may seem. Problems don’t go away until they’re solved, and ignoring them makes them worse.
A Tale of Two Conflicts
Early in my leadership career, I avoided confrontations with employees. If someone was underperforming or creating minor disruptions, I erred on the side of keeping the peace. I thought that by letting little problems slide, I could stave off relational friction and negativity that might upset the rest of the team.
But small problems snowball into larger ones, and relational friction grows along with them. It’s better to brace for short-term drama and aggravation than to allow problems to compound. When the latter happens, everyone wastes time and energy sorting out issues that could have been resolved months earlier.
As a boss, I want my employees to be honest when they’re frustrated with me. However, I recognize that it’s tough to initiate those conversations, especially if you’re not sure your supervisor or CEO really wants to hear it. Plenty of leaders say the right things about openness and communication. But they don’t always respond well when employees take them at their word.
I had one boss in my career that asked me to collaborate on a project with him. He said he viewed us as equals on this assignment and invited me to call him out if I felt he wasn’t holding up his end of the responsibilities. A little further into the project, I took him up on that offer and gave him some difficult feedback.
Instead of thanking me and talking through the issues, as he had led me to expect, I received significant blowback from that conversation. Our relationship never recovered.
I’m not suggesting that all bosses are just posturing when they say they want to be held accountable. But you don’t want to serve up a heaping dose of criticism until you know your boss well enough to gauge their sincerity. Does this person really want to hear what you think? Or are they just parroting something they heard at a leadership seminar that makes them sound more progressive than they are? You need to have a sense of your boss’s character before you can confidently initiate a conversation about the conflict.
Seek to Understand
Even if you enjoy a great dynamic with your boss, don’t rush headlong into a meeting about your problems. Productive conflict resolution begins with understanding why the issue arose.
Lack of clarity often lies at the heart of conflicts. Perhaps your boss gave you vague, ambiguous instructions and is dismayed that you didn’t do exactly what they wanted. Maybe you failed to ask for clarity for fear of seeming incompetent and are now in the hot seat. Reflect on where the problem started and identify any miscommunication that occurred. Not only will this help you avoid problems in the future, it will also create a good starting point for dialogue when you sit down with your boss.
A lack of transparency also causes friction in many organizations. No one wants to feel they’re being left in the dark, especially when companies undergo rapid growth and change. Perhaps your department’s future is unclear or you don’t understand how a project fits into the business’s overarching strategy.
You’re well within your rights to ask for more information, but try to see the bigger picture. Maybe what you interpret as opaqueness is really just the result of them juggling any number of decisions and responsibilities. When companies experience periods of high growth or financial hardship, its leaders may be so consumed by the business’s future that they forget to fill in the rest of the staff. That doesn’t make it OK, but coming to the conversation empathically is far more effective than angrily demanding answers and explanations.
Remember that your boss is human. They’re prone to mistakes and insensitivity, just as we all are. Instead of jumping to conclusions, seek to understand their position. Don’t get wrapped up in office gossip, which is poison to your mind and your productivity. When colleagues begin whispering about potential layoffs or budget cuts, don’t give in to the fear-mongering. Schedule a meeting with your boss and ask them for answers directly. They may have a perfectly reasonable explanation, and they’ll appreciate that you were forthright instead of perpetuating rumors.
If they messed up — and even the best bosses make mistakes — let them know how you feel but give them a chance to acknowledge your position. When they do, accept their apology and strive to improve the relationship going forward. As Colossians 3:13 tells us, “Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
How to Master Conflict Resolution with Your Supervisor
As I said earlier, having a conflict with your boss is unpleasant for everyone. But when managed correctly, it presents an opportunity to impress your boss with your thoughtfulness and maturity. Here’s how employees should react to conflicts with their supervisors:
Time is the currency of all relationships, including professional ones. Seek opportunities to get to know your boss, whether that’s volunteering for a project or prioritizing company events where you’ll get a chance to chat in a more casual setting. The stronger your rapport, the easier it will be to work through conflicts and strengthen the relationship. Teams that spend time with each other outside the office build strong relationships that will weather many storms.
You’re also less likely to be rattled by gossip if you regularly have candid conversations with your boss. Depending on how junior you are at the company, you may need to work hard to get on their radar. But once you do, make a point of stopping by their office, pitching them ideas, and following up on previous conversations to stay top of mind.
If you get the chance to work closely with your boss, take it. Nothing bonds people more than working toward shared goals, and you’ll gain a great deal of insight into their personality and leadership style. You’ll then be better equipped to empathize with them and diffuse problems before they begin. More importantly, you’ll trust your boss, which makes you less susceptible to rumors and petty aggravations.
When you do run into conflicts with your boss, a change of scenery can do wonders for gaining perspective. Meeting in their office or a conference room can keep you stuck in formal or negative patterns. Invite your boss to talk over coffee or lunch instead. The new surroundings will help you see one another as individuals rather than “boss” and “employee”. This fresh lens may inspire creative solutions to your conflict and spark a new interpersonal dynamic that will help you work together more effectively in the future.
Work on Your Self-Awareness
Sometimes you meet a new boss and it seems like you’ve known one another forever. You find your groove with them quickly, and you enjoy an easy, even friendly, dynamic. Other times, the relationship requires more work. You often feel as though you’re speaking different languages, and you simply don’t know how to connect with them. Those situations call for some serious self-awareness. The better you know yourself, the better you’ll be able to see how your personality complements or conflicts with your boss’s.
Let’s assume your boss is an introvert who processes thoughts and opinions internally. You, on the other hand, enjoy thinking out loud and thrive on vocal praise. Upon comparing your personalities, you realize that your boss isn’t inclined toward verbal affirmation. That doesn’t mean they don’t show appreciation; you just need to identify their method for rewarding outstanding performers.
Recognizing that you have different modes of relating to people will help you approach your boss with an open mind. Instead of complaining about the lack of vocal approval, you can come up with a feedback system that works for you both. The important thing is that you’re communicating and working with one another instead of simply complaining that you can never get through to them.
My team and I hold weekly catch-up sessions during which we share our wins and losses, dissect our current challenges, and ask for help when we need it. Those meetings are a great opportunity for us to bond with one another and to head off problems before they occur. Because we connect regularly, we also feel comfortable addressing potential conflicts and tension with one another. I doubt we’d experience that same sense of openness and camaraderie if we only met monthly or quarterly.
Ideally, your team holds similar sessions on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. But if you don’t, seek out ways to get that face time with your colleagues and your boss. You might even suggest the practice to your supervisor. Tell them you can do a trial run of a few weeks and see how the team responds. Work up a proposed schedule beforehand so they can envision what you have in mind.
I find that giving people an opportunity to voice their concerns and struggles helps us all. When workers aren’t afraid to tell their bosses they’re having problems, supervisors can step in to offer guidance. Bosses love to help. They want their teams to succeed. And they don’t want to waste time arguing with employees when an issue has spiraled out of control unnecessarily.
Regular meetings also allow your boss to understand your thought process and approach to your work. You may be grinding through a problem, but letting them witness that shows them the effort you’re dedicating to your job and illuminates areas where they could provide better support.
If you do initiate regular meetings, I suggest adding a big picture component to the agenda. Something as simple as, “What did you learn this week?” or “What is your top priority for the coming week?” sparks interesting discussions and helps your team elevate its thinking. This is a great way to connect more with your boss and to demonstrate your commitment to the organization.
Identify Your Boss’s Win
At Crown, we stay away from transactional leadership dynamics and we aim to maintain a fairly liberal open door policy. But not all companies are like that, and some positions are inherently transactional.
For instance, the relationship between factory owners and assembly-line workers offers fewer opportunities for open dialogue and regular check-ins. Even some white-collar bosses maintain a strict business relationship with their workers. They aren’t interested in people’s families or work-life balance challenges. They want you there at 8 a.m., out at 5 p.m., and all your work finished each day, no excuses.
In those scenarios, your best bet is to understand what your boss most cares about. Is it the number of units sold? Number of leads converted? Dollar amounts on new contracts? Find out your boss’s big win and help them achieve victory. As long as you do that, you will almost never find yourself in conflict with them — at least not over your job performance.
You may disagree with their management styles or experience personality clashes, and those are much bigger (and potentially unresolvable) issues. But if your goal is to maintain a positive, professional relationship, helping them get that win is a surefire strategy.
Watch Your Body Language
We all get fired up from time to time. When a coworker insinuates that your boss is upset with you or you feel your manager snubbed you in a meeting, it’s easy to ride that wave of anger and adrenaline right into their office.
But before you rush off to confront your boss, take a few deep breaths. Go for a walk to let off steam, and compose your thoughts ahead of the meeting. Your boss will interpret aggressive, accusatory language as threatening and disrespectful, and that will only hurt your case. Even if you had a legitimate gripe to begin with, you weaken your position by yelling and hurling insults.
Bosses expect a certain level of deference from employees regardless of their emotions. A lack of respect irreparably harms the relationship, though it may not become apparent right away. Your boss may listen to what you say and talk through the issue, but they’ll remember how you behaved and that outburst may cost you a promotion in the future. Once you’re branded as ill-tempered and disrespectful, it will be tough to shake that reputation and continue rising through the ranks.
When possible, wait at least a day before talking about hot-button issues with your boss. You don’t want to let the issue fester, but even a few hours can be enough time to cool down and see things from their perspective. Talk with your spouse or a trusted friend to get their take. Maybe you’re being a little unreasonable or misinterpreted the situation. Time and feedback can make all the difference to how the conflict plays out.
If you routinely struggle to keep your feelings in check, you may need to improve your EQ (emotional intelligence quotient). Employees with high EQs can easily tune into other people’s emotions, are receptive to constructive feedback, and have an easier time relating to their managers and peers. Journaling, meditation, and even participating in a course on self-awareness may help improve your relationships at work. I have heard it said that EQ is more important in today’s economy than IQ. I have watched people blow up their careers and great jobs because of poor EQ. Don’t let this happen to you!
Approached correctly, conflict resolution is a study in humility. Even if you are in the right, you must put yourself in your boss’s shoes and empathize with their position. You must also recognize that you played a role in the conflict. More often than not, both parties carry some responsibility for the issue. Acknowledging your shortcomings is a humbling exercise if ever there was one.
You may occasionally find yourself in situations where you are being treated unfairly, and you may have bosses who refuse to admit wrongdoing. That, too, is humbling. It’s frustrating when your grievances go unrecognized, especially if you end up penalized in some way as a result of the conflict.
Those are the moments when you must remember that your work is worship. Offer your anger and embarrassment up to God and ask Him to bring grace into your heart. Pray on the situation and seek wisdom in it. There are always lessons to be learned if we are open to receiving them.
Unless your boss’s offense was so egregious that it would insult your dignity to continue working for them, make a peace offering once the strong emotions have settled. That can break the ice and foster conversations about growth and change in the relationship. Matthew says, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and this is why. Being the bigger person is challenging, but it leads you to a place of deeper fulfillment and understanding.
Take the Long View
Not all conflicts are resolved the way you want them to. You may make an impassioned case for a particular initiative, but your boss could still go in a different direction. If you can live with that decision, humble yourself and say, “I just needed you to hear my thoughts on this, and I appreciate your attention. Since this is what you’ve decided, I’ll support you 100%.”
That’s not to say you won’t be disappointed. But conflicts need closure. Lingering resentment over rejected proposals or perceived slights poisons the entire organization. In such times, we can find wisdom in Ephesians 4:31-32: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Whether or not you agree with your boss’s decisions, move on and focus on the things you can control. How your company spends money or which clients it pursues may be out of your hands. But you can decide to show up with a positive attitude and a willingness to work hard. You can choose to pursue new opportunities to learn, to cultivate strong relationships with your boss and your team, and to work to the best of your ability. Those actions will raise your esteem in your boss’s eyes, and you may achieve different outcomes in the future.
Remember, too, that conflict resolution can take time. Just because your boss doesn’t come around in the first meeting doesn’t mean all is lost. Continue to show up with an open mind and a sincere heart, and you’ll find that opportunities for improving the relationship will reveal themselves over time.