A Dialog With Your Manager

The comments received on the previous post, “Bad Manager or Flawed Human?” were insightful and thought-provoking. I would like to thank everyone who took the time to express their passion about the subject. There is so much more to say. This post is my own follow up to the conversation in that post about “it won’t do any good to address the behavior of my manager”.

Many of us want to be able to turn to one another in our communities and workplaces with dialog that will further the healthy relationships that help us, our leaders and organizations, to grow. How can this happen if we don`t take some personal responsibility for addressing the behaviors of managers that harm us and ultimately destroy “the greater good”? By choosing to abstain from addressing this behavior, we benignly participate in the the unhappiness, if not the immorality, that we see around us.

Our responsibility transcends our fear

There is no reason for “feedack” conversations to be one-way (manager to employee). Just because we think it won’t change anything, is not the real reason. If we look beyond that excuse, we know the real reason is our fear. The structure and culture of our organizations have perpetuated this. Yet, our personal responsibility to take action must trancend our fear. Our workplaces cannot ever get healthy if we don’t begin the dialog with the offending manager.

I am not suggesting confrontation. I am suggesting dialog. This is a key distinction, because confrontation is grounded in anger. Dialog is grounded in our own passion for making our workplaces and our world a better place.

Why should we feel powerless to speak to our managers about their poor behavior? What is the worst that could happen?

Rejecting an opportunity to have a conversation with our managers about their poor behavior doesn`t change a thing. Having a dialog at least has a chance at catalyzing change.

Where to begin

So when you are tempted to complain or take a raincheck on the chance to initiate a difficult “feedback” conversation with your manager, ask yourself:

  • What is my fear?
  • What is my role in this situation?
  • What is the most productive action I could take?
  • Is there risk in taking that action?
  • Even if there is risk, is there possibility that my willingness to address the situation will catalyze a change?
  • What am I willing to do?
  • How will I start?

Ask for permission to have the discussion with your manager (“May I offer you some suggestions?” ” Would you be willing to listen to some feedback?”). By starting the conversation this way, you are not offering unsolicited feedback ?€“ 99.99% will answer “yes”. This is where listening and growth begins because they are now accepting ownership for what you have to express. Then say it with kindness and respect because your manager is not a bad person. They are a flawed human just like you.

Yes, it`s hard. Yes, there is some risk. The potential benefits of your dialog outweigh the risks. This courageous conversation is your responsibility.

Note: I would also encourage you to watch Bret L. Simmon’s excellent video blog series on The Courageous Leader.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

8 comments on “A Dialog With Your Manager

  1. Mary, Getting a manger to the point where they are open to feedback is the hardest part. I suspect often managers are scared of feedback from their reports as it might make them appear weak or vulnerable if they took it. I also think what you are saying could equally be applied to starting dialogue with your customers (I am thinking in a professional services sector particularly.)
    Kind Regards,

  2. Great stuff, MJ! You know I believe that if you don’t do stuff like this as a follower you will never appreciate this behavior in your followers when you become a leader. We simply must never surrender our dignity to anyone by seeing ourselves as anything less than a an adult in a peer relationship. Keep up the good work! Bret

  3. Mary Jo, I like how you distinguish between confrontation and dialogue. The one thing we have complete control over in the workplace is our behavior. If we attempt to provide feedback with an angry, frustrated attitude, we will have little success in reaching out to the manager. However, if we consistently behave in a positive, transparent manner we are much more likely to develop a meaningful dialogue with the manager.


  4. We do have an important choice to make. And when we hide behind the excuses that are born of fear we are essentially choosing to reinforce the status quo.

    I’ll add that bosses (or anyone for that matter) will also be a lot more likely to be open to and hear what we have to say if we speak to them from a context of their commitments, making our commitment to them and the success of our team or organization explicit.

  5. Mary Jo, there’s a very important point that you bring up in this piece, of approaching this conversation as a dialog, not a confrontation. I think for many people that’s the biggest obstacle they see – of perceiving such action as akin to picking a fight, as opposed to attempting to improve the situation.

    Also, by coming into the conversation with the internal understanding that you only want to have a conversation to help your boss, you’re more likely to be receptive to their initial resistance since you know you’re there to help them, not to point fingers. Having that kind of clarity of purpose going in should help greatly in overcoming any concerns of a confrontation since your body language will naturally being demonstrating the opposite.

    Another enjoyable post, Mary Jo. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Chris, the point really is that you can’t MAKE a manager do anything, much less be open to feedback. But you can change the way you approach the situation. It doesn’t guarantee results, but its your best shot. Note Kevin’s comment, below.

    Bret, I like your point about “not surrendering your dignity”. Its easy to do that in a heirarchical organization.

    Kevin, Thanks, and great points!

    Susan, great thought and addition to “speak from a position of commitment”. Most people in an organization want to do the right thing – part of that commitment.

    Tanveer, the wisdom you provide is much needed. Really getting ourselves to understand that this doesn’t have to be a confrontational stance – and intending a conversation or dialog instead – will go a long way toward setting the stage for that potentially frightening conversation with the manager.

  7. Hi Mary Jo

    I think that a lot of corporations have fostered very parent-child cultures and that we’ve all, too readily, bought into them. It’s time to stop seeing ourselves as children and take our adult power back. It’s there that we’re more resourceful and confident. We owe it to our bosses too to see them as adults and have the conversation from that place.

  8. I found this information useful. The communication between a manager and an employee can be somewhat difficult to achieve. I know that I’ve had that boss that I just can’t convey any information to. I will most likely use these tactics in the future, both as an employee and as a manager. For me, not being able to come up with a tactful approach to convey information without seeming unintelligent is my biggest flaw. The trick I realize now is to approach with confidence and know what to say and how to say it ahead of time.

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