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Ask The Expert : I don’t see eye to eye with my manager, can you offer some resilience tips?

The Scenario

I lead a team of six and at my last performance appraisal my manager criticised my leadership ability, saying that although my team got the job done, my communication skills were poor and that I should listen less and direct more. I found this hard to take, I don’t think because I’m unable to handle criticism, but because I have little respect for my manager’s style and ability in these areas – I feel I get far more out of my team by using a collaborative approach than an autocratic one. However, the company has been undergoing a period of organisational change and this has resulted in my manager being moved to a different part of the business. I hope that the new manager will not share my old manager’s views but can you offer any advice as to skills I could practise to increase my resilience and be better able to handle a manager I don’t see eye to eye with, as well as perhaps being able to lead my team more professionally?

Resilience Answer

One of the biggest challenges we can face during our careers is working with people whose management styles are significantly different to our own. This can be especially hard when the different style belongs to your manager. And when the respective styles are diametrically opposed, such as you just experienced, it can be a source of extreme frustration and potential conflict.

Usually we are happiest when the organisational culture matches our own dominant management style. But frequently this won’t be the case. We have no control over who will be our manager but we do have control over how we respond to the situation. Here are some of the approaches I’ve found most useful to navigate conflicting management styles effectively so that our resilience and job satisfaction remain high:

Accept differences, seek common ground and keep learning

It is important to remain true to our innate management style (see below). But if we are too rigid in thinking that ‘our way is the right way’ we are limiting our potential as managers. By being open to trying new approaches we have greater flexibility to respond to different situations. The greater our flexibility and ‘toolkit’ of approaches the more effective we become as leaders.  The key determinant of whether a management style is appropriate is ‘situational fit’. Some work situations work best with a collaborative approach whilst other situations benefit from an autocratic style. During times of rapid organisational change there can be a need to adopt a more autocratic approach in order to respond quickly to change. Team members may also prefer this style because it reduces uncertainty and anxiety.

It can be useful to reflect on the situation you just experienced. Could there have been benefits from adopting a slightly more autocratic approach as your manager suggested? Whilst it sounds like the way the message was communicated to you was delivered poorly, there may nevertheless be a nugget or two of useful feedback within the message if you can view it objectively and not take the criticism personally.

Although it can definitely ‘push our buttons’ to work with a manager who has a very different style, by learning to accept our differences and seeing the bigger picture we may actually find some benefits from such a mismatch. There can be synergies from combining different styles, such as when the detail-oriented person complements the visionary or the more-pessimistic individual manages to reign in the extreme optimist.

By seeking the common ground we can become more accepting of difference. Where are the areas of agreement? What common objectives are we aiming to fulfil? Where do we find the ‘win-win’ so both of us can be comfortable with our unique contribution to these objectives? Even if there are things you deeply dislike about another’s working style, ask yourself what aspects you could respect and identify their core strengths (this allows us to broaden our view to one that is more ‘whole-person’ and objective rather than just focussing on the areas of disagreement).

Build relationships

When your new manager arrives it is worthwhile to take the time and effort to build a good relationship with him or her. Familiarise yourself with their way of doing things and be flexible in the way you respond to their idiosyncrasies. Identify their key priorities and demonstrate your commitment to them.

After a while you will have created a solid foundation of trust and respect between the two of you. So if any disagreements arise in the future it is far easier to deal with them and resolve them harmoniously.

Become known as someone who expresses your own true opinions rather than being a ‘yes person’. Fine-tune your communication skills so you are comfortable expressing an alternate viewpoint whilst simultaneously maintaining rapport.

Trust Your Natural Style and Let it be Your Inner GPS

Whilst I’ve mentioned the value of developing a range of styles to respond to different work situations, our natural style is going to be the one we rely on and use most often. The literature on inspiring leaders shows a wide diversity of different leadership styles. Yet the one thing they all have in common is that they remain true to themselves.

Great leaders don’t try to model themselves on someone else or follow a ‘formula for leadership’; rather they express their unique character and style and ground their decisions and behaviours from the foundation of their underlying core values.  So, on the one hand there is value in remaining open to objectively determining whether we could adopt alternative management styles, yet on the other it is important to remain true to our convictions and innate style. How do we know which to choose in any particular situation? We turn to our support network (see the next point) and also turn to our sense of ‘inner knowing’. This ‘inner knowing’ is our internal GPS which provides us with clarity on which course of action to take. It is the sense when we just know we are ‘right’.

Cultivate a Strong Support Network

A powerful way of remaining resilient is by establishing a solid support network. We often think leadership means having to ‘tough it out alone’ but this is a myth. Research shows that people who have a strong support network experience greater resilience and less stress-related symptoms at work than those who don’t.

A mentor can be very helpful for situations such as the one you just encountered. He or she can offer alternative perspectives and suggest novel strategies to resolve problems. A good mentor will help you to see your blind spots in a way that supports constructive learning. And he or she can provide valuable feedback supporting the validity of your decisions and style. This bolsters your confidence so you have greater inner strength to stick to your resolve.

Your support network can also include colleagues you can turn to for practical, problem-solving support as well as people outside of work who are there for emotional support (such as providing a listening ear when you’ve had a really bad day).

Respond rather than React

When we are stressed the part of our brain that clearly evaluates situations shuts down and the ‘survival brain’ temporarily takes over. The survival brain perceives situations with a negative bias; everything and everyone is a potential threat. Misinterpreting situations, rashly making poor decisions, and impetuously saying something we later regret are all behaviours that can emanate from the survival brain. Whilst it is in the driving seat we have lost our ability to respond and instead are at the mercy of our reactions.

Self-awareness is the key to ensuring we don’t fall into this reactivity trap. When we are aware of our own unique ‘early warning’ stress responses we are able to take steps to stop the stress cycle escalating. One client I worked with identified her early-warning sign as the sensation of knots in her stomach. Whenever she felt this sensation she trained herself to take a short break during which she practised specific techniques to regain composure. This enabled her thinking brain to re-engage. Your own early warning signal could be emotional (feeing irritable) or mental (thinking negative thoughts) or physical (tense shoulders) or a combination of all three. Identify it and use it as a powerful ally to boost your resilience at work and in life in general.

Keep Smiling

Research has shown that happy people have better relationships at work, are more likely to be promoted, and earn more money. Whilst it is true that happiness is in part based on our genetics, a very significant proportion is under our own control. Setting and achieving a goal, doing something nice for a colleague, and writing down a list of five things you are grateful for are all strategies to boost positivity at work.

Practising such strategies regularly begins to shift our happiness ‘set-point’ to a higher level. Plus they can be tools to turn to when your buttons have been activated by a colleague you find difficult. Taking five minutes to write down things you’re grateful for will switch you into a calmer and more positive space.

Happier teams are more productive. In my own research on resilience at work, the managers I interviewed would often say something like “if there are two ways to reach the same goal then I will pick the way which is the most fun for me and my team”.

Healthy habits

It is challenging to perform at our best when we are physically under par. Therefore an essential part of remaining resilient is to take the time to look after yourself properly. Investing in healthy habits – such as ensuring we get sufficient sleep, eat well, exercise and are able to switch-off from work – pay considerable dividends in terms of keeping our minds sharp, emotions balanced and our physical energy high.

I hope these suggestions will help you to negotiate this period of change as well as for moving forward in your career, good resilience skills increase our ability to cope with personal and professional challenges but do require commitment and practice – good luck.


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