Harvard Business Review: What to Do When Your Boss Is Ignoring You - Michelle Gibbings

In this article for Harvard Business Review, Michelle suggests ways of what to do if your boss ignores you.

Imagine this: You’re at the weekly brainstorming meeting with your team. Every time you share an idea, your boss brushes it aside or gives a cursory nod and moves ahead without any real reaction. Or worse, you share a concept, your boss ignores it, and then minutes later your colleague shares the same idea and your boss congratulates them on their great suggestion. You leave the room feeling neglected and disrespected.

Being in this situation isn’t fun, and over time, it can negatively impact your self-esteem, your mental wellbeing, and your job. In their book on workplace ostracism — a situation wherein you’re excluded, dismissed, sidelined, or ignored — authors Cong Liu and Jie Ma note how commonplace this is, with most employees experiencing it at some stage in their career. In examining the vast amounts of research on the topic, they found that workplace ostracism can lead to anger, depression, anxiety, and emotional exhaustion among those who experience it.

Further research shows that being treated with respect is more important to most employees than recognition, appreciation, receiving feedback, and even learning and development opportunities. In a global study, respected employees reported:

  • 56% better health and well-being
  • 72 times more trust and safety
  • 89% more enjoyment and job satisfaction
  • 92% greater focus and prioritization

Clearly, being respected, as opposed to ignored, has a long-term impact on us and our careers. So what do you do if you feel like your boss is avoiding you and sidelining your ideas — especially if the shift is sudden?

Challenge your perspective.

Before you make any significant conclusions about your boss’s behavior (such as “They really don’t like me anymore,”) ask yourself if their behavior towards you has been consistent or if it has recently changed. There may be times when you get less attention and face time with your boss for reasons that have little to do with you or their relationship with you.

Start by challenging any assumptions you may be making and consider if there’s valid evidence to back up your perspective.

Don’t assume your boss’s intent.

It is easy to infer harmful intent about why your boss may be acting this way when, in fact, it may have nothing to do with you. It could be that their workload has increased, or they’re facing immense pressures from their boss and are struggling to cope. Maybe they have limited time and want to get done with things quickly. Or maybe they’re dealing with a personal crisis.

Before you assume the worst, give them the benefit of the doubt, and ask yourself:

  • Has my boss recently been given a big project when they already have too much to manage?
  • Are they working extremely long hours because their workload is unsustainable?
  • Do they have a new boss who may be challenging to work with?
  • Are they short on resources and shouldering too much responsibility?
  • Could there be challenges they might be facing at home?

It’s worth checking to see if others on the team are feeling the same way. Approach a colleague you trust, and ask, “Have you noticed anything different about [boss’s name] lately? They seem a little disengaged.” You may find that you’re not the only one feeling this way. If you feel that your boss’s workload is a factor (maybe they’re always available on Slack or sending emails late into the night), one of the best things you can do is approach your boss and ask them if there is more you can do to help them. They’ll appreciate you checking in.

Flip the lens.

Once you abandon the assumptions you hold about your boss’s behavior, flip the lens and consider how you would interpret their behavior if you assumed they were doing their best.

“The assumption of positive intent is only sustainable when people ask themselves this question: What boundaries need to be in place for me to be in my integrity and generous with my assumptions about the intentions, words, and actions of others,” write Dr. Brené Brown in her book Dare to Lead.

For example, maybe your boss didn’t deliberately ignore your idea, but the way you pitched it wasn’t as effective or clear as the way your colleague did. In your next one-on-one, bring it up and ask. You could say: “I want to get better at how I present my ideas during meetings. What would you suggest I do to get better at it? Is there something you’d like me to do differently?”

Taking this approach doesn’t mean you excuse behavior that can be categorized as bullying or intimidating. However, it does help provide the opportunity for you to look at your boss’s actions and consider alternative explanations for them.

Initiate a conversation.

There are times when the best approach is the direct approach. Email messages, for example, are prone to misinterpretation because you can’t see the other person, pick on their social cues, or hear their tone. It’s always better to have sensitive conversations in person (or on a video call). So hold to your values and integrity and proactively talk to your boss about their behavior towards you.

Gather courage.

Stepping into a conversation with someone who you report to takes courage. Your boss has positional power. This is the decision-making power and authority they derive from where they sit in the organizational hierarchy. You will want to draw on your inner reserves of strength to have this conversation. When you don’t speak up, the power imbalance in the relationship — which already exists because of their authority — gets further out of balance.

When power is more equally distributed such that everyone feels comfortable to speak up and share ideas, it is easier to challenge assumptions, act collaboratively, and make more informed and considered decisions.

Don’t take too long to make the ask.

Shying away from this type of conversation may, on the surface, appear to be the easy option, but my experience shows avoidance doesn’t work. When you take too long to act, the underlying issue often becomes harder to deal with. By avoiding the conversation, you miss the opportunity to deepen and strengthen your relationship with your boss. Good leaders will appreciate the fact that you’ve initiated a conversation. Likewise, in having the conversation, you’ll gain greater clarity on their expectations and may well find that some of your assumptions about the nature of your relationship are invalid.

Since many of us are working from home now (either full- or part-time), the best way to set up the conversation is to send your boss an email. You could say, “I was wondering if you have 30 minutes to spare this week. I want to bring my best to work every day, do more, and be as effective as I can. I’d like to share my plan with you, and I’d like your support.”

Remember, this isn’t an “I’m right, you’re wrong” conversation. Try to enter it with good intent, a genuine interest in your boss’s needs, and a desire to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome. 

Prepare yourself.

If the thought of having a conversation with your boss fills you with dread, then the stoic practice of the “Premeditation of Evils”  — or the art of negative visualization — will help. Here is how it works. Think about what you really want (for example, “I want to feel respected and heard in team meetings”). Next, think about what is the absolute worst possible outcome that could arise if you take that action.

For example:

  • What’s the worst thing that could happen if you approach your boss to have a conversation? They say no.
  • What’s the worst thing that could happen if you have the conversation and your boss disagrees with your perspective? They disagree with you, and the relationship doesn’t improve.

For both examples, if the worst outcome eventuates, at least you know where you stand, and you can then decide what to do next. The benefit of this practice is that it gets you thinking about what could go wrong, so if (and when) issues arise, you are prepared and therefore better able to respond. The good thing is what you imagine rarely takes place, while reflecting on the possibilities often helps you realize that it’s worth taking the risk and having the conversation.

Work on mending the relationship.

Once you’ve done some prep, think about how you’ll fix what seems to be broken. Plan out your conversation and how you will make yourself and your work more visible to your boss.

Have the conversation.

Don’t make this conversation about your work relationship with your boss. Frame your intent along the lines of “I want to add as much value as I can to the work I do, and I would love to chat about what else you need from me. I’m hoping you’re open to a conversation about how we best work together.” 

A good leader isn’t likely to decline such a request. Once they seem open to moving forward, talk about how you value them and their leadership and are looking for ways you can pitch in more. You can use this time to shed light on how you felt in the past week(s). You could say, “I was excited about the idea I shared during the meeting last week, but I felt you didn’t get too excited about it. Was there another way I could have presented it? I’d like your advice on how I can improve.”

Most likely, your boss will share constructive feedback.

Show them that you’re willing to follow their lead and make improvements by following up with something like, “This really helps. I gather that you’d like me to cover A, B, C. Thank you or your guidance and I’ll ensure I keep these tips in mind when I share my ideas.”

If by chance your boss does decline your request or seems shut down during your meeting, reflect on whether you approached them when they were in the right headspace. If they are not willing to entertain a conversation with you at any time, at least you now have a clear picture of the type of boss they are and whether you’d like to work for them.

Look for opportunities to make yourself visible.

Once you’ve had the conversation with your boss, continue to look for opportunities to demonstrate your value and make yourself visible.

With many of us now working from home, workplace dynamics have shifted, and you may be finding that the amount of face time you have with your boss has decreased. Rather than sit back and wait for your boss to initiate interactions, be proactive. For example, set up regular meetings with them, email status updates to make them aware of your work, and when appropriate, ditch the email and pick up the phone and call them. In every interaction, be present, timely, focused, actively involved, and ask questions.

Keep your own counsel.

As you work through this, it’s crucial to not ruminate about your relationship with your boss, or gossip and moan to colleagues about it. While it can be comforting to sit with your work BFF and share your pain, it won’t serve you in the long run.

Gossiping makes you feel good because it’s part of our evolutionary psychology. Dr Robin Dunbar, the author of Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, advises that it’s a form of social behavior that helps large groups bond. We feel connected with someone when we gossip, just as we like being part of the in-group when someone shares a secret with us. However, being labelled the office gossip isn’t a career-enhancing move. You can over-share at work and then later wish you’d kept your own counsel, particularly if the comments about your boss get back to them or other influential stakeholders and ruin the relationship you’re trying to mend.

Workplace relationships can be complex, none more so than the critical relationship you have with your boss. Taking the time and effort to objectively examine the connection, and work through what you can do to elevate the relationship and enhance your impact is crucial for ongoing career success.



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