Years ago, as the editor of prestigious trade magazine, I remember losing my cool with one of the top reporters. We were sharing a late-night cab home from the office, both having put in a long day, and when I pressed her on when I’d finally see the very late article she’d been laboring over, she told me she wasn’t sure she’d make the deadline, or any deadline that would allow the article to be printed in the next issue of the magazine. Caught by surprise, I lost it and started yelling at her. All the things I’d have to do to fix the problem were running through my mind. I was angrier than I’d ever been in my professional career and when I got out of the cab, I slammed the door as hard as I could. She avoided me the whole next day at work and the tension between us festered for a few days until I came up with a new piece to fill the hole in the magazine. Only then was I able to rationally discuss her article with her – and when it was finally finished, it was a great piece.
It was not my finest moment as a manager, but I can imagine it was even worse for her. Nobody wants to be on their boss’s bad side. After all, study after study shows how critical the relationship with your manager to your happiness at work. Not to mention that your boss controls many aspects of your working life, from assignments and raises to vacation requests.
In hindsight, I wished I’d handled the matter differently. As the boss, I should’ve discussed the problem with her calmly in the morning, when we were both rested and I’d had time to rationally think through the implications of her missing the deadline. But bosses, like everyone, aren’t perfect, and sometimes it’s up to the employee to make amends. It’s hard to step up, especially given the difference in power, but if you want to recover from making your boss angry, it’s important to not be timid and take the lead. Here’s how.
Don’t retreat to the shadows. Don’t be tempted to hide from your boss or sweep the conflict under the rug. That can cause the tension to fester and lead to future blow-ups, perhaps disproportional to the original offense. It’s critical that you attend to the working relationship if it’s been damaged, says Jeff Weiss, partner in Vantage Partners, a consultancy that specializes in negotiations and relationship management. Don’t wait for your boss to take the initiative to smooth things over. When you’re feeling calm and rational, go see your boss to clear the air.
Get input. Resist the urge to gossip about what happened with your colleagues. You can inflame a tense situation quickly if everyone is talking about it and word gets back to your manager. But it can be helpful to talk over the situation with one trusted friend or colleague to get perspective and to air your own thinking. You may rehearse what you want to say and your friend might, for instance, point out where you sound defensive or insincere.
Remember that your boss has more going on than just your battle. Your boss has normal reactions to stress and disappointment just like anybody else. She may be reacting disproportionately for reasons you can’t see in the moment. When I yelled at the reporter it was because I saw even longer days and nights of stress ahead of me until I came up with another article for the issue. But she probably didn’t realize that. Try to see the issue from your boss’s perspective.
Own the mistake. If you’ve done something to trigger your boss’s ire, take the high road. If you make a mistake, ”own it,” advises communication expert Holly Weeks, author of Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them. Even if it’s not entirely your fault, your boss will appreciate you taking responsibility. My reporter was working on a very tricky piece. It wasn’t entirely unreasonable to be late and I’d pushed her to finish sooner than she wanted to. Still, a sincere apology like, ”I’m sorry I let you down,” would’ve gone a long way.
Offer a solution. If you can help solve the problem, do so. You may not have a ready-made solution at the time, so consider taking a break in the conversation, reflecting on what happened and how you make it better, and then come back to it with fresh eyes, Weiss advises. ”Some conflicts take multiple iterations to resolve,” he says. “Success may come in small increments.”
Re-align with your boss. Make a point of getting on the same page with your boss. Tell her you’d like to avoid disappointing her again and ask her to discuss her priorities with you. If making a deadline is a top priority, you’ll know to communicate with her long before that’s in jeopardy. If not being surprised by bad news matters most, knowing so will let you avoid finding yourself in a similar predicament to my reporter.
It might not be you. If you have no idea what you did to trigger your boss’s ire – and you think maybe you aren’t at fault – still make a point of checking in with her. Your boss will appreciate that you’re making the effort to get on the same wavelength. In that conversation, your boss may let her guard down and explain the stress that she’s under, helping you better understand her challenges. But be careful to listen, rather than complain about her anger. Your goal is to open the doors to candid conversation. Either way, your boss will respect your having the courage to talk with her about how to make things better. On the other hand, your boss’s anger may not be justified. It’s not unusual for a manager to blow up at the last person in a chain of bad news. You can’t always know what caused your boss to lose her cool. It’s possible there wasn’t a good reason she lost her temper and she doesn’t have much to say about it — you were just the unlucky recipient. If that’s the case, try to put it behind you. If you keep the incident in perspective, it won’t color an otherwise good relationship.
Fortunately for both of us, I ended up repairing my relationship with the reporter, enough to convince her to join the next magazine I went to. And eventually, we were able to laugh about the incident. Like me, your boss may be embarrassed by the way she handled the situation. And like me, your boss would appreciate your working a little bit harder the next day to set things right. “Conflict is inevitable and conflict is not bad,” Weiss says. “We need to manage differences every day. Sometimes the best we can do is build understanding.”
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