Effective Communication

How to Improve Your Relationship
With Your Boss


We know successful personal relationships take time, effort, and trust.

But we forget that another important one-on-one relationship needs attention if it is going to work out.

A theory of leadership known as LMX (leader/member exchange theory) describes the relationship between a boss and team member with that same focus. Instead of picturing a single boss with a bunch of team members, it considers that a boss has a unique relationship with each team member.

That relationship is called a dyad. And while LMX theory is fascinating, you don’t need to know the details to apply some of its concepts to your own work life. All you really need to understand is that your relationship with your boss must be based on mutual trust, respect, and contributions. Thinking of you and your boss as a dyad can remind you that this is a unique relationship, and help you manage any friction, tension or conflicts before they become serious.

One general guideline nearly always applies: In work, as in life, we tend to take slights and negativity personally, when, more often than not, those negatives are more about the other person than about us.

How to Improve Your Relationship with Your Boss

Do you find yourself thinking, “All I do is give and give and all you do is take?” This is a common feeling, but often it is a matter of perspective. Step back and try to imagine what it might be like in your manager’s world. Barry Oshry, author of Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries Of Organizational Life, addresses the world of management this way: A boss who is in upper management may feel that all the cares and woes of the company are on his or her shoulders and may be reluctant to delegate for fear something will go amiss. A middle manager may feel caught between higher-ups, who have one set of expectations, and a team that has another.

Having a supervisor who doesn’t appreciate your effort and ideas or barely gives you the time of day can feel frustrating and demoralizing. But more than likely, that behavior has little or nothing to do with you. Your boss might be busy, even overwhelmed, and unaware of the messages they’re projecting. Letting your resentment fester and imagining your boss dislikes you can create real enmity and distrust.

So what can you do? Here are three steps to a better dynamic.

  1. Be a detective. Putting yourself in your boss’s place will help you realize what pressures may contribute to the behavior that bothers you and demonstrate that it isn’t about you.
  2. Jump in. Offer to take work off your boss’s desk. This will lower your manager’s stress level and get you noticed in an appreciative way. You’ll be perceived as proactive and reliable, which will engender warmer feelings on both sides.
  3. Tell it like it is. If you still feel slighted, and it still feels personal, it might be time to speak up. You want to clearly define the problem—first to yourself, and then, if you feel comfortable doing so, talk to your boss. Ask for a meeting with your boss and calmly and clearly explain that you feel there is friction between you. Follow with an open-ended question that invites your boss to share his or her perspective. And ask for thoughts on how you can together work to improve the relationship. If you don’t feel safe doing this one-on-one, ask for a neutral third-party, someone you trust, to participate in the conversation.

Your boss is not the boss of you! Although it’s less common than we think, sometimes there are people who may not like or appreciate you. Sometimes the relationship is just too difficult. If we’ve reached this point, it’s time to detach from the conflict. If you are stuck in your job, look for support from others—whether a trusted colleague, a mentor, or family member. Accept the situation and your relationship’s limitations, then address your own professional and personal health and work environment as best you can. It may not be ideal, but detaching from the conflict is always a better choice than feeding it.

About the Author

Lilly-Marie Lamar is a career advisor for Ivy Exec. She provided career advice to college students and professionals in the U.S. and abroad, and was a Fulbright scholar. Lilly-Marie has a degree in education from Columbia University.