When Your Manager Does Not Listen
Photo by Maxim Zhgulev on Unsplash
We’ve all read it in countless books and articles; your manager should inspire and support you. They are supposed to listen to your career objectives, assign you stretch projects, and guide you to growth. They will also remove any obstacles from the way to allow you to do your best job.
As you might suspect, the everyday workplace is much more chaotic than that. While coaching and training employees, I often hear them complain that their managers “just don’t listen”. The consequences of this behaviour are multifaceted, from being blatantly dismissed when giving feedback to missing promotions and critical opportunities.
Let’s examine four scenarios where managers don’t listen, focusing on how we can achieve the best outcome every time.
🙅 My manager doesn’t listen to feedback
According to McCombs School of Business research, managers seem to develop a selective hearing regarding feedback, especially when it’s coming from people who don’t look like them.
Where to start when your manager seems to ask for feedback, but only in a performative way? Or when they don’t follow up after you tentatively give them feedback?
It might help to discuss the issue with the rest of the team to make sense of the situation. Is this a typical behaviour with everyone, or does it seem to be targeted towards you? Make sure that your manager understands your feedback by making it direct, specific and timely, based on facts. Examine how you express this feedback, as your communication styles might clash. During meetings, pay attention to how other people talk to them and understand which communication style will get your boss’ attention.
🙅 My manager ignores my ideas
What happens when your manager doesn’t seem to value (or aggressively turns down) your ideas? It can feel demoralizing to work hard on something, only for your manager to ignore your contribution and go in a completely different direction.
In these cases, it might help to reevaluate your pitch. Try to find the most integral part of your idea and negotiate that instead of pushing for the complete package. Can you extract the MVP of your suggestion, the one idea that will convince and attract followers?
Focus on something that will produce tangible results for the business, either directly (by making money) or indirectly (e.g. by reducing costs or increasing efficiency). If possible, create a proof of concept that could yield positive results and measure the outcome. Present these findings to your manager; I haven’t met many leaders that will completely dismiss hard data.
🙅 My manager doesn’t help me with my work problems
Believe it or not, it’s not common for employees to get tangible help from their managers when they share their work problems. The numbers are abysmal: only 23% of employees report that their manager always responds constructively when they share their work problems, while 17% state that their manager doesn’t help at all.
When you don’t get any help or guidance from your manager on work issues, try to discern the problem. A typical scenario might be that they have a lot on their plate, lacking time to help you. In that case, you can ask them if they want you to take something off their plate to help them focus on providing guidance.
Another reason why managers might provide little to no guidance is that they want you to stretch your skills and find the solution yourself. If you’ve exhausted all possible solutions and still can’t see how to move forward, it’s important to stress that you’re blocked and need their help.
🙅 My manager ignored my request for a promotion
First things first: did you really ask for a promotion, or did you just hint about it? Did you make an explicit request, or did you use generic language and conceal the issue?
If you specifically asked for a promotion and your manager ignored the request, try to follow up with them. Is this a conscious and final decision, or do they need more context first? Is it a budget problem, or they just can’t find a way to accommodate your request based on the team’s current state?
If there’s not enough budget for a promotion, you could ask if there’s a clear timeline for future promotion possibilities, as well as discuss what you have to do to be considered for one. If they can’t visualize how your promotion might work, ask for a stretch goal that aligns with your request and prove your point. Bad timing can sometimes prevent you from being promoted, but you have to make sure you help yourself as much as possible first.
Raise the issue
I often advise my clients not to shy away from bringing this up to their managers. It would be best to try and raise the issue in a face-to-face or virtual meeting instead of an email, which can be easily misunderstood. Avoid letting the problem fester for months. Treat it like you treat feedback; give it in a timely fashion and tie it to specific facts.
It’s not about your relationship with your manager per se; it’s about how to maximize your contribution to the business. Give them direct feedback: which exact behaviour made you feel ignored? It’s tempting to start by complaining, but it’s more helpful to switch to problem-solving mode. Instead of aiming for changing their behaviour, try to state specific behaviours you want to see.
Should I talk to their manager?
Sometimes when there is no improvement in your manager’s behaviour, it might be tempting to go over their head and talk directly to their manager, hoping to solve the problem. However, make sure you consider the consequences before doing that.
You must understand that this behaviour will irreversibly impact your relationship with your manager. Even if you get your solution, your manager will find it hard to trust you after this. In some companies, your manager’s manager will outright refuse to talk to you, or you might get reprimanded or even laid off.
Is there a scenario where you should go over your manager’s head? Don’t hesitate to do it if anything unethical or illegal happens. Report anything involving sexual harassment, embezzlement, or violations of labour laws.
One of the first things a therapist will tell you is that you can’t really “fix” people. Expecting others to conform to your idea of “good behaviour” is not viable. However, you need to maintain a productive relationship with your manager in order to achieve your career objectives.
While it’s essential to make an effort to have a constructive manager/direct report relationship, you shouldn’t overexert yourself if you see it’s not working. Focus on your sense of purpose, productivity, and contributions to the organization instead, and consider applying for another team.