When Your Good Manager Behaves Badly

“I felt like my work isn’t valued.”

This wasn’t the first thing my friend said, but it hit me the hardest.  

Up to that point, my friend had only expressed that she felt connected to the people and purpose of her new job, and that her work was valued by and valuable to the organization. So what happened?

A crappy conversation with her manager.  

It started with a discussion around next year’s budget. The manager had asked my friend to make a recommendation for a new project, and my friend quickly sketched out the project and came up with a cost.  

Apparently the cost was too high, and the project wasn’t clearly defined. The conversation quickly devolved into some offhand negative feedback in the style of, “you might want to think about doing this more….” No clear resolution to the original question.

Gosh, you must be thinking, what a terrible manager.

Yes and no.

I’d reframe it as a terrible managerial moment.  

Because, as I was listening to my friend, I realized that I’d been that manager.  

I’d made the same missteps. Complained about cost, criticized a deliverable that I’d requested without giving parameters, and – there is no other way to put it – gotten pissy and defensive when the conversation went sideways.

And I’m not a horrible manager. Really. And neither was hers.

What happened? Here is my diagnosis.

There was a trigger: if the manager was feeling pressure on budget, a higher than expected number caused a defensive reaction, literally fight or flight. The manager stayed in the conversation and “fought.” Even as the tone and content stayed professional, the energy of the fight came through. My friend also made a strategic error by talking about the cost of the project before the scope – and value – were understood.  

I found out later that the manager had just come from a budget meeting. Yep.

More importantly, what happens next?

As in any relationship, one bad conversation doesn’t have to break it. Yet, this feeling of not being valued had taken a deep root with my friend. Trust was lost. As her friend, I wanted to wave my magic wand – or use one of those coaching modalities I’ve been learning – to set her back on a trusting path. But I can’t do that, and neither can my friend un-hear what she heard or un-feel what she was feeling.  

Instead, I had two pieces of advice for her:

Acknowledge what happened

Go there, use emotional language. “When we had the conversation last week I felt….” It’s awkward and scary to do, but often comes as a relief to the other person who is probably having their own version of emotions after that difficult meeting. A source for guidance on what to say in these situations is non-violent communication or NVC (which I confess I have not yet mastered.)

Reframe the conversation

Get back to the original issue, back to the value of the project. Ask questions about the manager’s context and listen. Help them solve the problem – if there is a problem – that funding your project presents.  

And what do we take away from this as managers?

Every manager is a middle manager, stuck between the people who depend on you as a manager and the people who you depend on to set direction and parameters. We may try to shield our direct reports from some of those pressures, but we are only human too. If you know you messed up, be honest about it and do the repair work.  

And, anytime there is a dispute, taking responsibility for your side can lead to trust that things will be different in the future.

I’m happy to report that my friend did have a follow up conversation with their manager, and are doing the repair work to move their relationship – and the new project – forward.

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