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“What do you do to force your boss to give you feedback?  I’m getting this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that I’m not doing well and he’s not  just not telling me.  How can I make him talk to me?  Like at this tradeshow.  There are three of us. He invited the other person to dinner tonight—but not me.  And when I’ve asked him how I’m doing on the job, he just says, ‘fine.’ That’s it.  No elaboration.  Maybe it’s my imagination, but I get the distinct feeling that he’s unhappy with me and I don’t know why.  Is it my imagination?  How can you tell?  How can you know if a boss won’t give you formal feedback?”

The woman posing the question after my speech was not nearly so concerned with selling her ideas to the C-Suite. Instead, she desperately wanted help in hearing from her vice president who had hired her only six months earlier. And from the details she poured out over the next ten minutes, her boss seemed to have forgotten why he’d brought her aboard.

That conversation started me thinking about the lack of straight-forward communication in a negative situation––one of the most unpleasant parts of any manager’s job.   If you’re getting that sinking feeling that things between you and your boss are strained and you’re wondering if the disapproval is real or imagined, consider the following tell-tale signs of growing distance and disfavor in the relationship:

Too Busy to Meet:   Unplanned drop-in chats or phone calls seem unwelcome—and, in fact, a big intrusion.  Then when you request a formal meeting, it’s tough for the boss to find time for you.   Read this message:  Your contributions have become less valuable to the boss’s day-to-day priorities.   The boss may be communicating that you’ve not made his/her priorities your own or that you have poor judgment about sorting the significant from the trivial in what to bring to his/her attention.

Messages Delivered Through Other People:   A colleague stops by your desk to say, “Joanne asked me to stop by your office on the way out to lunch to ask you to please get her those Hillman figures before you leave today.”  This could be just a spur-of-the-moment delivery system to save time.  Or the boss may be communicating another message altogether:  “The rest of us are working as a team around here and know what’s going on. You’re one rung down.” Or you can read this message: “I don’t have time for explanations, excuses, or questions.  It’s easier just to send a one-way message.”

More Emails and Voicemails; Fewer Face-to-Face Discussions:  Emails and voicemails allow more control—of phrasing, of emotion, of length, of the total message.  A boss who’s miffed can wait until emotions are at even keel and he/she has a matter-of-fact tone to leave a voice mail, asking about the expenses to the tradeshow.  With a face-to-face discussion, the boss knows there’s always the chance that a simmering dissatisfaction can flame out of control at a sudden sour twist in the conversation.  Better to hold things in check, the boss thinks, until he or she has made a final decision on what to do about the situation.

No Coaching Tips Offered:   Read statements like this as positive: “The next time a situation like this with a client comes us, what I’d like to see you try is X.”  Coaching tips represent an investment of time and energy in you. Coaching tips communicate positive reinforcement that the boss has future plans for you.  Their absence may mean the boss has given up on you.

No Face-Saving Comments in Mistakes/Blunders/Errors in Judgment:    Example: “Your slides do not incorporate the information from our latest employee survey.”  A gracious way to point out someone’s mistake is to allow them to save face:  “Your slides do not incorporate the information from our latest employee survey.  You may not have been aware of that survey because it was only finished and circulated late last Thursday. But adding those numbers would make this slideshow—and any conclusions we draw from it––much more valid.”  When legitimate face-saving comments disappear in discussions of errors, the boss is no longer in your corner.

Shortcomings Exposed and Documented Before Others:   Every manager who has held the title longer than a couple of months knows to praise in public and reprimand in private. When your gaffs are brought up for laughs or laments in meetings, read this as the boss’s way of documenting those shortcomings for the group.  That means less explaining when you’re gone.

The conclusion?  Ask for–– and accept–– feedback early and often while the relationship stands in good repair.

Dianna Booher, an expert in executive communications, is the author of 45 books, published in 26 countries and 20 languages.  Her latest books include Creating Personal Presence: Look, Talk, Think, and Act Like a Leader and Communicate with Confidence, Revised Edition. As CEO of Booher Consultants and as a high-caliber keynote speaker, Dianna and her staff travel worldwide to deliver focused speeches and training programs to address specific communication challenges and increase effectiveness in oral, written, interpersonal, and organizational communication.

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21 thoughts on “Communication Skills: How Do You Know Your Boss Is About to Let You Go?—Part 1”

  1. I really appreciate this article because point out something happen in all culture. The same happen in Europe and the signs something is getting bad are just the same. I’m agree with you to force ourselves to ask for a feedback. Better to know and be prepared that happening out of the blue.

    1. That’s often the case, Dennis. But things can be turned around. I’ve seen it done in my own organization.

    1. Thanks, Debra. It’s just that some of us work for the customer rather than a “boss” on the same payroll.

    1. Thanks, Sukhraj. The key idea is to pick up on these clues before it’s too late to turn the situation around.

    1. Actually, as you point out, Martha, the advice applies to any relationship–personal or work. And at work, everybody is an employee–even if you’re the CEO. As CEO, you work for your boss, the customer.

  2. It’s a really helpful post Dianne. The way you make us understand the shift in communication (or I should say of no communication) of a boss allow us to move and, as you said, “Ask for–– and accept–– feedback early and often while the relationship stands in good repair”. That’s a wise move and thanks to your post we can drive in it, if we happen to experience such a case. Thanks

    1. Glad you found the notion of feedback helpful, Fabrizio. Most people duck feedback sessions–and live to regret it.

    1. Good luck to your son, Rick! With everybody doing the work of about 3 people nowadays, his colleagues will be welcoming him with open arms!

    1. True, Maria. A friend of mine has put together a “finishing school” of sorts to teach those experiences to those just entering the workforce.

  3. Ugh. I hate when the boss thinks it is funny to throw someone under the bus in a meeting. While it does usually probably mean you are on your way out, sometimes the boss is just an insensitive boor. I have known a couple of these.

  4. I’m going to take this from a Sales Management prospective, which I did for a number of years leading teams from 7 to 15. I think if you follow this scenario in the post, and just remove yourself from the relationship, you’re doing the employee, the company, and yourself a disservice. People don’t perform well when their in limbo and/or don’t understand their place. In a Sales environment generally the employee is put on a Plan which includes hitting certain objectives and numbers over a 30-60 day period. If these goals are not met, the employee is terminated. While only a small percentage achieve these goals, they at least know what they are up against. When you see someone turn it around, it’s great to witness. If they mail it in, then they’ll be let go before the Plan period ends. Seems simple, but it’s all about communication. Don’t hide managers.

    1. Thanks, Steve, for this perspective. Nowhere is direct communication between manager and employee more important than in sales–unless that would be in the ER room during surgery!

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