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Five ways to improve your relationship with your CEO

February 21, 2020
February 28, 2020

Do you ever struggle to communicate effectively with your boss? If so, you’re not alone. A recent study from Totaljobs revealed almost half of respondents had left a job due to a poor relationship with their manager. Just one in three felt they could talk about work-related issues, while only one in five felt they could raise a personal problem.

A healthy relationship between managers and direct reports is important at any level, but what if you’re both senior leaders in your organisation? What if your boss is the CEO? You’re both accustomed to holding a certain level of authority, influence and decision-making power, so the dynamics can be complex.

When you’re on the same page with your boss, it’s more likely that both of you will perform better. When you’re both in senior positions, a productive and respectful relationship is key to company success - and to the engagement and morale of your people. But if the relationship sours, it can affect your daily mood and wellbeing, and potentially even jeopardise future opportunities.

Here are five strategies we encourage our clients to use to resolve conflict and navigate their relationships with their boss.

1. Don’t play the blame game

When you find yourself in a challenging relationship at work, it’s common to want to focus on the other person’s shortcomings.

One of my clients, Su*, is a highly competent CIO. She has decades of people management experience and has developed a strong value system around what it means to lead well. But her boss seems to break all of these rules. She sees him as distracted, unavailable and failing to tune in to her needs. When we explore the patterns in their relationship, she notices her frustrations seeping into all of their interactions. By making him wrong, she’s overlooking her role in the dysfunctional relationship.

In fact, blame is one of the five most toxic team behaviours, according to John Gottman’s model. Instead of rushing to blame her CEO, Su is now working to reframe her complaints as requests, to help keep the conversations respectful and productive. How could this approach help you?

2. Stop making negative assumptions

Another common pitfall is jumping to conclusions about your CEO’s intentions in the absence of concrete information.

In our coaching, Lucy tells me about a project she’d love to work on, but her CEO has been vague about getting it started. Without a clear response from her boss, Lucy has created her own story about what’s happening: he’s keeping the best work for himself. Once challenged to step back and notice her assumptions, Lucy becomes more open to other possible explanations for his behaviour.

As Brené Brown says, once we confront the story we’re telling ourselves about someone’s behaviour, we can consider alternative explanations and avoid compounding misunderstandings and miscommunication. Are you telling yourself a story that might not be 100% accurate?

3. Put yourself in your CEO’s shoes

Of all the unwritten rules about organisational life, there’s a weird double standard about compassion that I find really interesting. One of my clients, John, is a CFO who is brilliant at nurturing his team’s talents. He’s adept at giving constructive feedback based on both genuine care and thoughtful challenge. Yet, when it comes to challenging his own boss, John is considerably less gentle!

Why wouldn’t we have compassion up the hierarchy, as well as for those we manage? CEOs are people too! If John wants to influence his manager’s behaviour, he should replace furious with curious and put himself in the CEO’s shoes. What motivates them? What keeps them up at night? Only when you start to see the world through someone else’s eyes, can you build the trust and influence you want.

4. Change the frame

A good tactic to help you reserve judgement in your interactions with your boss is to think about the traits or quirks that you value or respect about them. Perhaps you admire their ability to cut through to the root of a problem. Maybe they’re adept at big picture thinking, or they have a really strong work ethic. Struggling to think of something? Do your homework. I’m sure you can find at least one thing.

Whatever it is, hold that positive trait front of mind in every conversation. Reframing helps you see your CEO as a whole person, rather than viewing your interactions through the myopic lens of the issue at the heart of your conflict.

5. Remember, you have a choice

All that said, if the relationship with your boss truly isn’t working for you, remember, you can leave. Yes, the prospect of changing jobs can be daunting and often logistically challenging, but even just recognising the simple truth that there are other options can be a game changer for many of our coaching clients. Ironically, just recognising that the relationship isn’t one you’re obliged to remain in forever can help many clients find new ways to improve it – and feel more empowered to do so.

If you’d like some support to work through any challenges in your relationship with your boss, contact us for a free consultation.

* Client names have been changed.

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