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It's Complicated: Changing the Relationship Status with your Boss

Supporting the Profession Center for Women
September 19, 2018 Linda Varvel Women in Science and Engineer at The University of Iowa

I didn’t want to like her. And I tried really hard not to. When a new supervisor joined the team of three I worked with in a previous position, we were skeptical. My team had ups and downs after we were all hired into our role a year earlier. This transition was meant to be a good thing. As a result, we all had pretty high expectations of what this person should and would bring to the table.

I won’t bore you with the details of our first year together, but it was rough. If we were labeling our relationship with a Facebook status, it would definitely have been, “It’s complicated.” I dreaded our one-on-one weekly meetings (just as much as she did), and our staff meetings were tense and uncomfortable. Our department was taking a big leap into some new initiatives and I was not quiet about my disagreement in the approach we were taking. I am a question-asker and a strategic thinker. My questions were viewed as a challenge, instead of a helpful thought to consider. Our team was even forced to hold a meeting off campus in a neutral location to discuss our feelings and talk about how our team could come together in a more positive way.

Honestly, I don’t think our relationship was set up for success to begin with. Because we had reported to my bosses boss before our new supervisor was hired, that person played a big role in communicating to me directly about my boss and also communicated to my boss directly about me. It made it very easy to not “need” my new boss for anything. It also made it very easy for information to be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Additionally, when three staff members are determined to dislike someone, it is easy to fall into groupthink and head down a negative path quickly.

After the dreadful academic year that would never end finally ended, I was sent to a conference to learn more about technology we would be using in our work. She was also going, as well as another member of our team. I was dreading the six-hour car ride to the conference (and six-hours back!), but felt comforted by the fact that my colleague would be in the car with us. The morning of the trip, my colleague quickly abandoned me to ride in a car with folks from another office on campus. I felt betrayed and panicked! I sent a text to my husband and he encouraged me to use the time to get to know her as a person. And he encouraged me to let her get to know more of me as well.

That car ride was the turning point in our relationship.

We talked about our program, growth, new ideas, and how to unify our team. I shared my deep desire to make a positive impact on student success, and ideas that I felt would aid in that. We talked about her life before her current position, and I talked about my career history. And we laughed together. I was actually enjoying my time in the car with her. When we arrived to the city where the conference was taking place, we also shared a near death experience when we were almost run off the road into oncoming traffic by a semi-truck driving through a downtown metro area. That is a story for another day, but I’m pretty certain that we were also united in the shared stress of that experience, even if we were able to laugh about it later when we were safely to our hotel.

The following academic year I saw our “relationship status” begin to shift. She trusted me and saw new value in me as a staff member. Our weekly one-on-ones changed from short uncomfortable check-ins to two-hour brainstorm and mentoring sessions. I was motivated to do my best work, and our relationship grew. Instead of quietly stewing in my office over frustrating decisions or confusing changes, I went to the source (her). These positive changes left me feeling uncertain about the balance between serving on a team with colleagues who hadn’t reached that place with this supervisor and loving the relationship I was building with her.

As our relationship grew, our friendship was also developing. We had many similarities. We thought the same way, and laughed at the same things. We also found many of the same things ridiculous (I always love that in a person). When she told me she was job searching, I wasn’t surprised. Even with a positive change in our relationship, that didn’t change the fit for her in our department, the leadership team, or her personal life in our town. You know what, though? Even though I wasn’t surprised, I was disappointed. I had really grown to like working with her, and enjoyed her friendship.

That fall she secured a new job, and her last day of work fell when I was home on maternity leave after having our second child. She drove to my house to say goodbye, bearing a thoughtful gift for our new son. We sat in my living room chatting for over an hour, and when she left I had to fight back tears. Not only was I sad to see her go, but it felt especially hard to say goodbye to someone with whom I built a friendship that we really had to fight to achieve. After she left, my husband asked me if, two years ago, I would have believed him if he had told me I would feel sad to see her go. My answer was, “Absolutely not.”

Today, almost four years after she left, we are still close and I consider her to be one of my most trusted confidants. She is one of the most thoughtful, strong, and strategic professionals I have ever worked for. We have supported each other through the heartbreak of a job not received, and given advice about work and personal life. We check in via text message here and there and we try to get together to visit if schedules will allow – like our Saturday coffee date in March when we met halfway and blinked six hours away chatting over lattes and baked goods. My colleagues from that time period are often surprised when they realize that supervisor and I are still connected, and that is ok. We all build and maintain different relationships with the people we work with.

As I previously mentioned, I would have never believed it if someone had told me our relationship would be what it is today. So I plead with you to have faith in the power of a changed relationship with a challenging supervisor. The weekly one-on-one meetings might be uncomfortable. It might seem like they are out to get you. The expectations might feel too high. It might feel like they misunderstand everything you say. But have faith. And think about these three tips that I will leave you with:  

See your supervisor as a PERSON: When I began working with my supervisor, I viewed her as her title and the person I “answered to” who was barking orders at me about the massive initiative our office had taken on. But at the core of it, she was a human being, not much different than myself. Viewing her as an individual helped me humanize my feelings toward her. She was a professional woman who had picked up her life to move to Iowa from the west coast, knew no one in town, and was thrown into a whirlwind of projects upon day one of her job. Doing this grew my empathy for her. Empathy for others is a powerful tool. Try it.

Avoid Distractions: After my initial appraisal of my supervisor, and the influence of my colleagues, I created deep assumptions about who she was and what her intentions were. However, when I forced myself to avoid the distractions of the people around me and the impact of our environment, it helped me focus in on the personal/professional relationship between the TWO of us. It helped to compartmentalize OUR relationship and focus on what I needed from a supervisor, and what she needed from me. It pulled me out of the groupthink I had been sucked into (and quite honestly, would have been happy to stay in). Avoiding distractions helps make your supervisory relationship about the two of you, and nothing else.

Make sure you’re both on the same page (and reading from the same book): It became clear that the things I thought she was thinking about me and my work, and the things she thought I was thinking about her and her work, were not represented clearly to either of us from other people. If we had just spoken openly to one another, we might have had a chance to begin building our relationship in the first year instead of treading through the murky and uncomfortable waters of year one. Thankfully we were forced to ride in a car together for 12 total hours and it helped each of us realize that we were on the same team. Do what you need to do in order to achieve this with your boss, even though I only suggest a 12-hour car ride if absolutely necessary.

You may be reading this and thinking to yourself that my story is the unicorn of bad supervisor relationships gone right. That’s fine. But, let me remind you that I would have thought the SAME thing if I had read this blog post back in 2012. Keep that in mind, and best wishes in changing your supervisory relationship status!

(Linda Varvel is the Director of On Campus Programs for Women in Science and Engineering at the University of Iowa. She is a big-hearted mom of two who enjoys conversation over a good cup of coffee, listening to podcasts, and playing board games with her husband. You can find her at lmvarvel on Instagram and facebook.)