The Subtle Signs Your Boss Isn’t Happy With You

Twenty-one percent of managers admit that they avoid giving negative feedback, leaving employees to put the pieces together on their own.

Published: Jan 22, 2020

In pop culture, bosses are often portrayed as ruthless characters who take pleasure in criticizing their employees. In reality, bosses often struggle to give their employees any kind of criticism. According to a 2017 survey by leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman, 44% of managers say they find it stressful and difficult to deliver negative feedback, and a surprising 21% say they avoid it entirely.

The result is that employees are often left to pick up clues themselves that their manager isn’t happy with their performance. It’s an uncomfortable position to be in, but solving the puzzle can help you address problems before they reflect on your career. “The person responsible for your review has the ability to steer the course and rate your performance for the entire year,” says Andrea Wolf, Korn Ferry’s market leader for the consumer market in North America. “[You want to] make sure that your priorities are clear and in agreement with that person.

If your manager’s whole vibe seems off—they’re averting eye contact, tightening their lips while you speak, or looking over your head entirely—there may be something amiss.

Understanding the signs

You aren’t hearing your name as much. 
“If there’s a new initiative that would make sense for you to be involved in, but you’re not, that’s a sign,” says Kim Zoller, CEO of the workplace training and development firm ID360. The same is true if your boss used to seek out your opinion or mention your name in meetings, and now they don’t.

The casual chats are rarer. 
Your boss used to come by your desk pretty often to ask you about your weekend or make a joke about a TV show you both watch. Some weeks are busier than others, but if your boss hasn’t popped by for a while or seems to be finding time to chat with everyone but you, it may be that you’re on the outs.

Emails are suddenly following a new pattern. 
Often the way people feel that something is off is a change in the tone or frequency of their boss’s emails. Some find that their bosses suddenly become slower to reply; others find that their bosses start emailing them in a more formal way than before, a sign that they may be subconsciously trying to create distance.

Body language tells you something’s off. 
It’s been said that communication is 7% verbal and 93% nonverbal. If your manager’s whole vibe seems off—they’re averting eye contact, tightening their lips while you speak, or looking over your head entirely—there may be something amiss.

Getting back on track

Your first move is to suss out whether the boss is acting differently towards other colleagues too. “Maybe you’re not being singled out,” says Priscilla Claman, head of the executive coaching firm Career Strategies. “Maybe everybody is in the same boat.” Pay attention to the way other people are being treated, or seek the wisdom of one or two colleagues you trust about whether or not they’ve noticed a change as well.

If you establish that you in fact are being singled out, schedule time for a talk with the boss; experts say that for managers who struggle to share critical feedback, having an employee take the initiative to seek out critical feedback is often a huge relief. During this conversation, keep your focus on the work, saying, “I’ve noticed I haven’t been invited to meetings lately. Is there feedback you can give me about why?”

You may find out that your boss doesn’t have it in for you at all; they could be focused on an issue that has nothing to do with you. Take the case of Bill, a middle manager who was hurt because his boss had recently left him out of an important decision affecting his team. When Bill finally brought it up, the boss revealed that his own supervisor had swooped in suddenly, asking for a decision by the end of the day. Since Bill was out of town, his boss had gone ahead and made the call on his own.

In any case, listen to what your boss says; if they bring up any problems that you’re aware of and can apologize for, do so immediately and ask for advice on how to do better in the future. If your boss brings up something you’d never anticipated, get as much detail as you can and remain professional in your response even if your instinct is to wave away their concerns; you want to make sure your boss knows how seriously you’re taking their criticism, and that you’re dedicated to righting the ship.

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