January 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: The Corporate World January 1998 Current Issue

The Corporate World


Getting Through to the Boss

Your relationship with your superior is in flux. Can you fix it?

Your boss is your friend. You've worked together for several years, had a few laughs and handled a few crises together. And then, one day, your boss won't even respond when you say "hello." You can't get intelligible replies to your questions, and when you try to find out what's wrong, he puts you off.

A nightmare? Possibly, but not an uncommon one. Victims of this "directional change" suffer at hundreds of companies around the country. It's especially prevalent at service companies and departments such as those that handle meetings and conventions, because management often reacts very swiftly to a change in the corporate wind. And that change shoots straight from the top brass right down the ladder.

Perhaps the directional change involves an ongoing project that some executive vice president has been pursuing and you're part of the project team, but now that guy's out of favor. Or the budget has been cut and your boss tells you it's time to move on. The signals are many, but you may be able to save your job and reopen the lines of communication when your boss changes his attitude toward you. The one thing you don't want to do right away is confront your supervisor about what's going on. The experts say: Tackle the problem too soon and you'll get nothing but hostility.

A psychologist can help you handle any emotional trauma. But management experts who specialize in saving careers have more practical suggestions. While it's easy to panic in this kind of high-pressure situation, focusing your energies on a rescue strategy is more constructive. Here are some suggestions.

Get the whole story. "Above all," says Ann Bengtsson, a management consultant specializing in human resources issues, "find out what's going on." Too many service employees don't follow the economic trends that affect their industry. A great many don't even read The Wall Street Journal, Bengtsson says. She suggests keeping close track of how your company is growing (or not growing), the current stock price and the overall trends that affect your industry. The more information you gather, the better prepared you are to offer solutions to companywide and departmental changes -- solutions that stress your professional expertise and, therefore, value to the company.

Don't let people know you're worried. One of the easiest ways to speed yourself to a career change is to indicate to your colleagues that you're becoming uncomfortable in your job. Word will get around fast that you're having difficulties, and that will cause more problems. It may not be easy to put up a good front, but if your fellow workers know you're on the outs, they may start acting cool to you as well. Keep smiling if you can, and keep the troubles to yourself -- or at least out of the office. If you feel stressed by the whole situation, seek the advice of a professional career counselor who can help you get perspective and offer solutions.

Don't pick fights. No matter how badly you feel about the way your boss is treating you, avoid conflict. Do your job just as well as, or better than, you did it before, and try to stay away from matters that you know are controversial. Keep in mind that you don't want to draw negative attention from your boss. "A lot of employees under pressure let it show in small ways, like their dress," says Bengtsson. Such small rebellions just remind your boss of your difficulties.

Achieve something extra. There is always some project that's been put on the back burner that you can do at odd times, something special that you know your boss will appreciate that you've accomplished. Perhaps there's a lead you haven't had time to follow up, or some ideas that you've never fully fleshed out. Complete these projects discretely, if possible, so your boss is not concerned about how you're spending your time. Then simply present him with the results.

Eventually, unless the situation is really grave, your boss will relax. And he'll be grateful to you for the way you responded. He probably was worried you were going to cause him more problems, and you haven't done that. What should ensue is a frank discussion of what's really been going on. Afterward, you should start feeling at home at the office again.

If, after giving it your best shot, the situation is still strained, you may need to face the truth that it's time to move on. *

Andrew Rosenbaum is a New York City-based free-lance journalist who specializes in management issues.

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