Most employees tolerate their managers more than love them. According to a year-old survey in Forbes:
- Only about 50% of employees say the boss values their opinion.
- Only 35% of employees feel inspired by their boss.
- Some 25% say they can do a better job than their boss does.
- Almost 20% say that their boss takes credit for their work.
Given this, there should be no surprise that employee-manager relations sometimes flare up and that when they do employees often feel uncomfortable bringing the problem to their manager. According to a different survey, 68% of employees are afraid to complain about their boss, fearing retaliation for so doing.
Great companies recognize these, perhaps sad, facts and try to manage around them. For example, when I ran Host Analytics I would end virtually every piece of employee communications with the following:
If you have a problem with your boss and feel comfortable raising it with them, then please do so. If you are not comfortable raising it with your boss, then please tell someone. Talk to HR. Talk to your manager’s manager. Talk to any e-staff member. Talk to me. Talk to our coach. I know that when employee-manager relations are the issue, it’s often impossible to raise the problem with your boss. So please tell someone else.
In addition, beyond setting that as a policy, you can use other mechanisms to detect these issues. Periodic, ideally anonymous, employee surveys do a great job of finding “hot spots” where an entire team is having problems with its manager. (We used Culture Amp for employee surveys and its slicing-and-dicing lit up hot spots right away.) Open-ended questions and comment fields also often reveal troubles on a more individual basis. So does just walking around and asking people how they’re doing.
The goal from the company’s perspective is to surface these problems so they can be addressed. Some managers, however, often react in a way that defeats that intent. When a problem is surfaced via an indirect channel, many managers first instinct is say two things to the employee:
- “Why didn’t you bring this to me directly?”
- “Why didn’t you bring this to me sooner?”
Both are wrong. Both not so subtly blame the employee — the first indirectly calling them a coward and the second indirectly accusing them of perpetuating the problem because you can’t fix an issue you don’t know about. Both show that you care more about yourself and your reputation than you do about the employee. Banish them from your management vocabulary.
Great managers don’t react this way. They replace the above two reactions with two far superior ones:
- “Thank you for raising the problem to someone.”
- “Please tell me more about the problem so we can work on it.”
Maybe three months in the future, once and if the problem is clearly fixed, then the manager can safely say, “by the way, why didn’t you feel comfortable raising that problem to me anyway?” In that context, the question will sound like genuine interest in the feedback. In the heat of the moment, all it sounds like is “blame.”
Assume that, regardless of channel used, raising a working relationship issue is very hard for the employee and was probably preceded by some combination of sleepless nights and tears. So thank them for doing the difficult thing and raising the issue — regardless of how — and respect their courage by jumping in immediately to learn more about it.