Summary. Working for an insecure manager can be incredibly demotivating. What should you do if you think your manager doesn’t trust you? In this advice column, workplace expert Amy Gallo answers a question from a reader who’s in the thick of this situation. They feel like they’re constantly walking on eggshells to ensure they don’t set their boss off — and they’re not sure what to do next. Amy offers three research-backed approaches to try. The first one is about signaling that you’re not a rival; the second is about building trust; and the third involves talking to your boss directly about the situation.
Working for an insecure manager can be incredibly demotivating. What should you do if you think your manager doesn’t trust you? In this advice column, workplace expert Amy Gallo answers a question from a reader who’s in the thick of this situation. They feel like they’re constantly walking on eggshells to ensure they don’t set their boss off — and they’re not sure what to do next. Amy offers three research-backed approaches to try. The first one is about signaling that you’re not a rival; the second is about building trust; and the third involves talking to your boss directly about the situation.
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“Getting Along” is an advice column to help you tackle common — and messy — people problems, by workplace expert Amy Gallo.
I was hired within the last year into a senior technical leadership role in the U.S. Department of Defense. I was told that I was the best candidate for the job because I was going to be overseeing agencies in which I had done similar work.See AlsoWindsor Store at Clackamas Town Center | WindsorMarch 28, 2023 - Nashville elementary school shootingHow to Clean and Store Morel Mushrooms – Health Starts in the Kitchen
But since starting, I’ve been facing some challenges with my direct supervisor. She seems to think that I’m out to get her or gunning for her position. She has even directly accused me of “undermining her authority” by talking to personnel in other agencies. These are conversations I need to be having to do my job well, and I always keep her in the loop so she knows I’m having them. I’ve been a manager of a much larger organization and would never have attempted to be the single point of coordination with outside agencies, as she is trying to do.
She also cuts me off in conversations in front of others — believing she understands my position when she doesn’t — and walks away in frustration. There have been at least six of these situations that were serious enough for me to document. In two instances, I confronted her privately and calmly described my process for communication and my confusion regarding what I had done to make her think I could not be trusted. This seemed to work in the short-term, but I’m constantly walking on eggshells to ensure I don’t set her off.
What specific actions should I take so that she doesn’t see me as a threat to her position? How can I build and maintain her trust in me as a valued team member?
. . .
I can understand your concern and frustration with this situation! Working for a manager who is questioning your work, hoarding information or relationships, or even undermining you, can feel like a personal attack.
It was a smart move to share your concerns one on one with her and I’m encouraged that those conversations helped to fix things, even if only temporarily. (Behavioral change is hard so, while disappointing, it’s not surprising that she reverted back to her old ways pretty quickly).
There are three approaches I’d suggest. The first one is about signaling that you’re not a rival; the second is about building trust; and the third involves talking to your boss directly about the situation. Let’s go a little deeper into each.
1. Look for small ways to signal that you’re not a threat.
One of the confusing things about working for an insecure boss is trying to understand why they feel threatened when they have more power and authority than you. Shouldn’t it be the people without power who worry about their jobs and how others see them?
In a series of studies, professors Nathanael Fast and Serena Chen have shown that when powerful people feel incompetent, they tend to act more aggressively toward others, needlessly sabotaging them or being vindictive. Incompetence alone doesn’t lead to aggression though. In fact, those in less powerful roles who feel insecure don’t typically resort to the same bad behaviors.
The discrepancy between how confident or capable leaders actually feel and the high expectations that come with their role — leadership skills, knowledge, access to information and data — results in what’s often called “ego defensiveness,” where leaders engage in actions to protect their self-esteem or justify their actions.
Calming your boss’s ego is probably the last thing you want to do, especially if she’s undermining you, but it’s a small price to pay for reduced stress and being able to stop walking on eggshells.
You want your boss to think of you as an ally, not a rival. It’s best if you can do this from the start of your relationship, but it’s never too late to reset the tone. In a meeting, you might say, “I admire what you do and I’m hoping to continue learning from you.” Research on managers who feel incompetent has shown that genuine flattery helps. Note the word “genuine.” Most people will see right through empty praise.
I’d understand if you were concerned about coming off as a sycophant. Instead of compliments, you can express appreciation for something she’s done for you. In one of Fast’s studies, he saw that when an employee said, “Thank you so much. I’m grateful,” it positively influenced an insecure manager’s evaluation of their employee’s performance. So consider thanking your manager for giving you a chance to work on a high-profile project or for introducing you to colleagues in another division. Not only will this set her at ease, but by bringing attention to some of her strengths, you may help her build confidence.
One word of caution: Working for an insecure boss can spark our own competitive tendencies. But one of the worst things you can do is to retaliate. If your manager senses that you can’t be trusted or that you have disdain for them, their defensiveness is likely to ramp up.
It can also help to have some empathy for her. It’s possible that in a previous work situation, people were indeed out to get her, or that she was consistently undermined by a direct report. And the fact that you’ve been in a similar position to her before and you know what it takes to effectively lead a team may make her uneasy. Understanding that she may have rational reasons for her behavior can help soften your stance toward her.
I want to be clear: I’m not excusing her behavior in any way or suggesting you give her a “free pass.” In an ideal world, she would realize the impact she’s having and take steps to remedy that. But you can’t guarantee she will take those steps so shifting your mindset will help you deal with the situation differently.
2. Build trust by emphasizing how you’re both aligned.
Leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman analyzed thousands of 360-degree leadership assessments to determine what made people trust a leader. Their research points to three elements: positive relationships, good judgment/expertise, and consistency.
You can ask yourself which of these three traits you are doing a good job exhibiting in your interactions with your boss, and which can you improve on? Since we often aren’t great judges of our own behavior, you might consider asking a colleague who is a regular witness to your interactions with your boss for candid feedback on what you might do differently to shift the dynamic between you.
Based on your email, it sounds like there’s an opportunity to improve the quality of your relationship. There’s another classic HBR article about what it takes to build trust and there’s a line from it that feels potentially relevant to your situation: “Research … shows that people judged to be competent but lacking in warmth often elicit envy in others, an emotion involving both respect and resentment that cuts both ways. When we respect someone, we want to cooperate or affiliate ourselves with him or her, but resentment can make that person vulnerable to harsh reprisal.” In other words, your boss’s resentment may stem from the fact that she doesn’t feel like you’re on her side.
Here are two specific steps you might consider taking:
Ask about her priorities.
Have an explicit conversation where you ask what she is most focused on and how you can best support those goals. You might say, “I want to be sure I understand what success looks like for you and that I’m doing what I can to contribute. What are the two or three goals you’re focused on right now? Do you have any thoughts about how I can support those?”
Look for opportunities for joint wins.
Once you know what her priorities are, see if there’s something you can team up to accomplish together. Is there a project where your expertise can be especially useful to her? Is there something she’s particularly good at that you can emphasize and highlight? Framing your work as a joint effort could help to alleviate tension. Start sentences with “we” as much as possible. And when you succeed, be sure to share the glory.
3. Return to the one-on-one conversation.
The fact that talking to her directly helped before makes me hopeful that she might be able to listen and even change. Reflect on the previous two conversations with her. What worked in those discussions? What put her at ease? Were there things you said that she seemed to react negatively to? You mentioned that you “confronted her” and it’d be good to approach your next conversation with a collaborative stance. You might say, “It’s important to me that we work well together and I feel like we don’t always do that. I want to own my part in that. Is there something I can do differently to improve our working relationship?” If she shares any feedback, listen carefully and thank her. You might not agree with everything she suggests but by demonstrating a willingness to change and shift your approach, she’s more likely to do the same.
One tool I’ll offer here is the situation-behavior-impact feedback framework developed by the Center for Creative Leadership. This might be useful for discussing the instances where she cuts you off. It works like this:
- Point out when and where a specific behavior occurred (the situation): “When we were discussing the project in front of our colleagues…”
- Then, explain in detail what you observed, being as specific and neutral as possible (the behavior): “…you stopped me mid-sentence for clarification and then left the conversation before I was able to finish…”
- Describe the consequences of the behavior (the impact): “… and it made me feel as if you weren’t interested in my perspective. Also, I imagine it wasn’t your intention, but stopping me mid-sentence in front of others left me feeling embarrassed.”
One last thing — I’m glad that you’ve been documenting the more egregious instances of her undermining behavior. It’s always helpful to have a record, especially if you need to make the case to those in power that your manager is doing real harm. For every offense possible, note the time, place, what was said or done, by whom, and who was present at the time.
And don’t just record your boss’s actions, also note what you said and did in response. Higher ups will be more willing to take action if they see a pattern of behavior and know that you — and perhaps others — have already taken steps to address it. I can’t guarantee that my suggestions above will work, and you want to be prepared if they don’t.
Document your successes too so they don’t get diminished by your colleague or the tension between you. Keep a running list of what you’re working on and any ideas or pitches you bring forward. Hopefully, it won’t come to a point where you’ll need to use either list, but it’s better to proactively protect your career.
I want to reiterate that improving this relationship is not entirely your responsibility. In fact, I could argue that the burden really falls on your manager to change! But, in the absence of that, I wanted to give you some concrete tactics you can use to hopefully nudge the dynamic in a more productive direction.
If you have a question that you’d like me to answer in a future column, please reach me here.
What to Do When You Have a Bad Boss by Mary Abbajay
Getting Along with an Insecure, Know-It-All Pessimist by Women at Work (podcast)
How to Deal with a Jealous Manager by Ruchi Sinha