On the Clock

When Your Boss Shuts You Out

The impetus for the cold shoulder can be difficult to decipher.

After working as the second-in-command for a while, a manager we’ll call Jim started getting the cold shoulder from his boss—shunned from meetings he usually attended and brushed off when he tried to pop in for chats. After the situation continued for a few weeks, Jim confronted his boss and realized his hunch was correct: he’d been shut out.

When something is off between you and your boss it can bring about a flurry of emotions, from feeling betrayed to worrying you may be on the verge of losing your job. And trying to figure out why a shutout may be happening can be just as confusing. “It’s important not to take these things emotionally,” says Anne Sugar, an executive coach in Boston. “You have to be as objective as possible.”

It takes five positive interactions to negate one negative interaction.

The impetus for a shutout usually boils down to either your behavior or your performance. According to Bennett Tepper, chair of the Department of Management and Human Resources at Ohio State University, research shows there are two crucial underpinnings to trusting people: confidence in their competence and the belief that they have our best intentions at heart. “We’re more likely to give advice to and take advice from those who are warm and competent,” he says. Which means you’re likely to get shut out if you’ve done something that makes you seem unreliable or untrustworthy.

But a shutout can also happen if you’re perceived as a threat to your manager’s authority or position. Or, even more confusing, what appears to be a snub could just be a rough patch for your boss. Here are some signals of a shutout—and tips on how to repair the relationship.

Suss out the signs.

Often, it takes time to decipher a snub. Is your boss’s grumpy mood a one-off or something that’s reoccurring and specific to you? Obvious signs of a cold shoulder include being passed over for assignments you normally would receive, or hearing about information secondhand when you previously got it from the source. Murkier signals include sarcastic replies or a feeling your boss is avoiding you. “The specifics might differ, but it always comes down to behavior that’s outside of the normal interactions you’ve always had,” Sugar says.

Schedule a candid chat.

If you’ve determined it looks like a shutout, find a time to meet with your boss and, in a non-confrontational way, express your concerns. Mary Abbajay, president and CEO of Careerstone Group in Washington, DC, recommends saying something like, “Is there anything I can do differently to be more effective and help you out?” Once Jim, the No. 2, said as much to his boss, she opened up: She had begun to notice he was increasingly dismissive and disengaged in meetings. And while she’d chosen to ignore the behavior for a long time because he was performing well, she could no longer do so. The conversation cleared the way for Jim to immediately start fixing the problem. When he began slipping into old habits, his boss took to texting him, “WTF?” and he would snap out of it.

Try on your boss’s perspective.

Regardless of what you’ve done (or not done), it’s important to remember you aren’t the center of your boss’s universe. Your manager might be busy with his or her own projects or frustrations, and those simply could be creating a moody trickle-down effect. Abbajay recalls a client who had a great relationship with her boss and grew concerned about their rapport when her boss started acting evasive. When she asked her what was going on, the woman was taken aback, explaining she was simply preoccupied with an overwhelming deadline.

Time marches on.

If you’ve read the signals and the shutout is because of something you’ve done, it may take some time to get back in your boss’s good graces. “We tend to be affected by negative stuff more than positive stuff,” Tepper says. Indeed, research shows that it takes five positive interactions to negate one negative interaction. So start piling up the constructive points.

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