How to Talk to Your Boss

Many employees experience difficulties with their bosses’ behavior, expectations, or management style. A lack of availability, clear direction or feedback, unreasonable workloads, and expectations that you’ll respond to emails or phone calls 24/7, top the list of concerns I hear from my clients. But how do you talk to your boss about these issues without damaging your relationship—or your reputation?

Make no mistake: The best way to have a good working relationship with your boss is to take criticism well, take the initiative in your own skill building, and do your best to perform to the expectations given to you. If you’re working to your full potential in these ways but your boss is doing something that derails you, he/she will never know unless you work up the courage to express it.

So yes, you can talk to your boss about difficult things. Here’s how.

Communicate with Respect

Respectful communication is key in all relationships, but it is especially critical when talking to those in power over you. Most of us don’t like the word “submission” but it really does apply in parent/child and boss/employee relationships. It is the natural order of things; wouldn’t you, in turn, want your direct reports to honor your direction and requests and to respect the authority of your position?

You can show respect through:

  • your tone
  • your attitude
  • your approach

Plan the Talk

Every difficult conversation is best delivered with a mixture of truth and grace. In their book How to Have Those Difficult Conversations You’ve Been Avoiding, Drs. John Townsend and Henry Cloud describe “truth” as the reality of the situation from your perspective. “Grace” is being on the side of the relationship. It is showing respect for him/her as a person, and demonstrating that you care about the quality of your working relationship. As you think about how to talk to your boss, write out a script to make sure you are balancing truth and grace, while also being clear and objective in your delivery.

Here is a format to help you plan talking to your boss:

Ask for a specific time to talk: “Do you have 15 minutes today for a face-to-face conversation?”
Express appreciation for his/her time: “Thanks for taking time out to talk with me today. I know it’s been a very busy week for you.”

Let your boss know you want to do your best and perform at your highest level possible, as a way of creating context: “I want to reach my goals this year and, in fact, I would really like to exceed them.

Express your appreciation for the things you genuinely value in him/her: “I like working for you and I particularly like how you make your expectations very clear and are always available when I have a question or need some help.”

Present the specific issue that is bothering you in a non-blaming and objective way: “The thing I wanted to talk with you about today is the amount of time we spend communicating on email and by phone during off hours. When you email me late at night, I get the feeling you expect me to respond immediately. I may be wrong about that, so let me know. But it is making it difficult for me to have time with my family and get the sleep I need.”

Now listen for the response: Your boss may say, “Sure, no problem. I don’t need you to respond right away” and the problem is cleared up. But he/she may also say, “That’s just part of the territory and you will have to adjust.”

If the latter happens, drive for accommodation by making a request or proposing a counteroffer to address the disconnect: “Can we agree to no more than 1 hour of work after 7 pm?” Or, “Would it work for you if I worked longer at the office, say 7 am to 7 pm, and after that my time is my own?”

End with a thank you for talking, regardless of the outcome.