Newspaper & Magazine

By Matt Villano | THE NEW YORK TIMES
Published: March 5, 2006

Q. You're in the third month of a new job, and your professional relationship with the boss is uncomfortable. How can you break the ice?

Chris Reed

A. Nobody wants an awkward relationship with a superior, but don't come on too strong in trying to improve it. Pam Lenehan, president of Ridge Hill Consulting, a corporate strategy firm in Needham, Mass., said that pressuring a boss to warm up could backfire.

"The last thing you want to do is make the boss feel like you're forcing a certain kind of relationship," said Ms. Lenehan, author of "What You Don't Know and Your Boss Won't Tell You: Advice From Senior Female Executives on What You Need to Succeed" (Syren Books, 2006). "Careers are like rockets in that if yours gets off target in the beginning, your situation will only get worse."

Q. What kind of professional relationship should you expect?

A. Everyone has a different leadership style. Does your boss appear to be friendly or does she keep to herself? Simple observations can give you a better sense of how she likes to relate to employees, said Anna Soo Wildermuth, president of Personal Images, a career consulting company in Elmhurst, Ill.

"It's unfair to you and your boss to assume you'll have a certain relationship until you've had a chance to see how your new boss works," she said.

Q. What are some likely causes of awkwardness?

A. Some people just don't concern themselves with pleasantries in the workplace. Karen Leland, president of the Sterling Consulting Group, a management consulting firm in Sausalito, Calif., said that when leaders were under pressure from upper management , they might not have time to focus on being nice.

Ms. Leland, co-author with Keith Bailey of "Watercooler Wisdom: How Smart People Prosper in the Face of Conflict, Pressure and Change" (New Harbinger, 2005), added that a boss could also be vexed by events in his personal life.

Other people approach new employees with a certain degree of reserve. Ilise Benun is one such boss. Ms. Benun, president of Marketing Mentor, a consulting firm in Hoboken, N.J., said she was "not the warmest person" in the workplace, and revealed that when she recently hired a new employee, it took her months to stop treating the new worker with stiff formality.

"I can't help it, but it really does take me a long time to let my hair down," Ms. Benun said. "I have been in situations where I can envision what it would be like to be warmer, but I can't bring myself to do it because I fear it will create too much vulnerability for me and my firm."

Q. When should a strained relationship warrant concern?

A. If a distant relationship with a boss is hindering your ability to fulfill your professional responsibilities, sound the alarms. Debra Condren, president of Business Psychology Solutions, a performance development firm in New York, said employees should become wary if a boss doesn't include them in meetings, fails to return e-mail messages or phone calls and appears to be generally uninterested in what they are doing. Other warning signs include a lack of chitchat, eye contact and simple salutations.

"The real red flag is when you're not getting any communication cues," she said. "Without a communication mechanism in place, employees are powerless to know if they're doing a good job, and that uncertainty can be devastating."

Q. What are the first steps toward ending the awkwardness?

A. Take a few days to reflect on the situation. Talk things through with someone you trust, perhaps even with a colleague. Aaron Nurick, professor of management and psychology at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., said that getting someone else's perspective could be invaluable in determining the scope of the problem.

"A lot of times, awkward relationships have anxiety or fear of failure associated with them, and that anxiety prompts us to blow things out of proportion," Mr. Nurick said. "We all approach work with our own baggage, so it's important to make sure you're seeing the situation objectively before you act."

Employees should consider whether they can adjust to the boss's style. If Fridays are particularly busy days, for example, confer with the boss on Thursdays about projects. If the boss never responds to questions about her family, stop asking. Bill Wiersma, president of Wiersma & Associates, a management and consulting firm in Pleasant Hill, Calif., said that this kind of flexibility was critical, because the boss does not have to change. You may have to.

Q. At what point do you discuss your disappointment with the boss?

A. Wait at least six months. If the relationship hasn't thawed by then, schedule a private meeting. Be respectful, never accusatory. Judith E. Glaser, author of "The DNA of Leadership" (Platinum Press, 2006), said employees should couch their concerns in questions about fine-tuning their performance to meet the boss's needs. Ask specifically what you can do to increase the value you bring to the organization, she said.

"It's amazing how well bosses will respond if you take the touchy-feely language and put it into business terms," said Ms. Glaser, who founded and is chief executive of Benchmark Communications, a management consulting firm in New York. "At the end of the day, you're both there to advance the company."

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