The workplace is a crucible of relationship dynamics, and we cannot always avoid working in close quarters with people we don’t particularly get on with. But what if that difficult relationship is with your boss?
Personality clashes can come down to character differences, ways of working, misunderstandings, unresolved tensions or values that are just not aligned. And if not treated with care, they can escalate into a work situation that is uncomfortable at best — and can be damaging at worst.
Research shows that a difficult relationship with a boss is a common cause of work-related stress — one survey revealed that a whopping 75 percent of people considered their immediate boss to be the most stressful aspect of their job. Poor working relationships can contribute to absenteeism and downturns in productivity — in an Acas report, 40 percent of those surveyed reported being less motivated and more than half (56 percent) reported stress, anxiety and/or depression due to workplace conflict.
More than a feeling…
'Quite early on in my career I had a manager that just took against me for some reason. I didn’t feel that I could ask her why, as there were never any concrete things to point at that didn’t make it sound as if I was moaning,’ notes retail buyer Julie.
‘I just felt as if I couldn’t do anything right in her mind — she constantly passed me over for opportunities in our team and made me feel very uncomfortable and on edge around her. Over time it eroded my confidence in myself and my abilities.’
And she is not alone — research by workplace conflict management services Pollock Peacebuilding shows that 49 percent of workplace conflicts stem from personality clashes and egos. These conflicts can range from mild irritation to simply not being able to work together, but in all cases, they make workplaces difficult and can even have a detrimental effect on health and wellbeing. Personality clashes can also affect your role in larger ways too, including your boss being able to influence your opportunities and progression in the company in a negative way.
‘A manager who wants to assert their authority over an outspoken employee can tag an employee a ‘performance problem’ to neutralise the threat,’ notes Liz Ryan, author of Reinvention Roadmap: Break the Rules to Get the Job You Want and Career You Deserve. ‘In my experience 90 percent or more of individual employee 'performance problems' are personality conflicts between employees and their supervisors.’
‘I had to keep records of all the work I was doing,’ says Sîan, a finance team leader. ‘My manager and I had always had quite a difficult relationship — she would shut me down quite often when I was making a point or contributing to meetings and make sharp remarks to me in front of my team which I found frustrating. But over time she seemed to become more and more focused on my work as a way to put me down; she always found it to be lacking in some way and tried to use that to imply I was not performing overall.’
Addressing the issue
So, how can you address a personality clash with a boss in a way that helps you to move forward and retain your own sense of power.
Firstly, try to see conflict resolution as a skill not an emotional challenge, says Lynn Taylor, author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant. She notes that emotional intelligence is the key to managing any difficult situation, and that where possible trying to find a resolution is important. ‘Problems fester when they're shoved under the rug. Communication dissipates, and so does the relationship, until someone bravely steps forward,’ she says
That brave communication could be a direct conversation with your boss if there are clear instances and actions that you can cite around their behaviour toward you. It’s important to choose your time carefully to bring things up — and avoid discussing your situation with co-workers to stop information coming back to your boss second-hand.
Although a poor working relationship can trigger strong emotions, staying neutral with your boss is essential. In any communication, part of that will be presenting just the facts about their behaviour and actions and staying away from emotions and personal opinion. Avoiding any kind of public confrontation is also essential as it will only inflame the situation.
Practical solutions can also help release tension – perhaps you can use hybrid working patterns to give each other physical space? Or work together to clarify working practices so that expectations are aligned? These things may not turn you into each other’s best friend, but they can remove unnecessary friction in your relationship, in turn helping to highlight any underlying emotional aspect if needed.
It’s not you, it’s me…
Every dynamic has more than one element and getting to the bottom of — and resolving — your personality clash with your boss will also involve self-awareness.
Consider the dominant elements of your personalities and how these might interact badly. Are there any ways in which you could adjust your approach to discussing projects for example? Are you annoyed with your boss all the time, or just when particular work-related issues are raised? Do you feel that you both have clear expectations of each other? Do you feel a lack of recognition in your role and feel resentment as a result? These are questions you can ask yourself to help understand your interpersonal dynamic better before you raise the issue with them.
Another key question to ask yourself is whether you respect your boss. Finding common ground, even just in how you objectively view their professional competency or certain characteristics can help to shift energy in your interactions. Expressing this to them in conversation in a natural and relevant way — ‘I really admire the way you can hold attention in a meeting. I am learning a lot from you’ — can also underline this sense of professional respect and help smooth an interpersonal relationship.
Using emotional intelligence can also include trying to understand your boss's communication style more clearly, as personality clashes can often be the natural ongoing result of misunderstandings and miscommunication.
Does your boss want big picture ideas and less fine detail in your interactions? Do they value concise communication and data, or do they operate from a place of emotional intelligence and want to know how you feel? Understanding, then trying to think and talk in that same style can help them to feel more comfortable — and in turn, allow you to land your ideas and thoughts with them more effectively.
Overall, open, considered communication may help to resolve things, or at least improve your working relationship. Of course, even with the best intentions you may not be able to make a relationship with a boss work, and if a personality clash worsens then consider discussing it with a mediator from HR or management to get some external advice. You could also talk to a trusted leader to see if there might be any lateral moves you can make in the company that will take you out from under a direct relationship with your boss.
In the end, though, life and work go on…even if you and your boss don’t get on. Maintaining perspective is crucial to making a considered decision about how you approach the situation and what your boundaries are — as well as ultimately what value and impact the relationship really is to your overall career journey.