Q. Although I know I do a good job, my boss never speaks to me except when she wants something done. I've asked for training but never got any and, although I'm better qualified academically than some of my colleagues, in three years I haven't been promoted. I feel our relationship is at breaking point. What shall I do?
Miranda Kennett: It's very dispiriting when it appears that, despite your best efforts, you are being overlooked in favour of other, less competent people. It's easy to descend into victim mode, which increases your sense of helplessness and can reduce your ability to change the situation. So your first step is to try and establish whether you are genuinely being singled out for mistreatment or if your boss tends to be this way with everyone except a small group of favourites.
If you stand back and examine her behaviour, you may discover that she belongs to the group of managers who prefer to keep workplace contact to professional transactions. I have worked with clients who have alienated their team members because they haven't understood the importance of a degree of social interaction in motivating and creating loyalty in their staff.
They tend to be very task-focused and are often disappointed to find that issuing orders without engaging their staff doesn't tend to produce the results they expect. As they come to understand that others can require a greater degree of personal contact than they do, they are pleased to discover that paying even a small amount of attention to individuals can have a marked, positive effect on productivity. They will never want to engage in chitchat, but they can show appreciation and lend an ear when required.
Of course, it is possible that your boss harbours some resentment towards you as an individual, if not for something you have done then perhaps for something you represent. For example, you mention your academic qualifications - is your boss similarly qualified? If not, she may resent this and be inclined to think you feel superior to your colleagues.
Another dynamic may be that, as you become increasingly disenchanted with how you are being treated, you may radiate hostility towards your boss, which in turn will tend to reinforce whatever negative feelings she has about you. One effective way of breaking this cycle is to consider what she does well and what value she brings to the organisation. However jaundiced your view of her now, you will probably be able to list things at which she excels. If you can bring to mind this mental appreciation of her more positive aspects just before your next encounter you will be able to communicate some respect for her, which may elicit a more favourable response.
Nonetheless, the situation can't continue and you need to act. If you have an appraisal coming up soon, this could be the moment to bring up the subject of your promotion.
Start by sharing something of how you feel, rather than making assumptions about what's behind her actions. You could say: 'I am feeling disappointed that, despite working hard and doing a good job, after three years you haven't given me a pay rise or a promotion.'
Then pause and listen to what she says. If she gives some reason why you haven't had any advancement, then it would fair enough to ask: 'Under what circumstances would you promote me?' The answer will tell you whether there's any hope for you under this boss or not. I would suggest not mentioning the others who have been promoted ahead of you; make the discussion about your merit.
Even if you don't have appraisals or one is not due for a while, it would be worth making an appointment with your boss to discuss how you work together. You could start by saying something like: 'I'm worried that we don't seem to be working together as well as we might and I wonder what's behind that and whether we could find a better way in future.' She may ask for examples and if you provide them make sure you stick to the facts and don't make assertions she can refute. Be sure to ask her what she feels would make your working relationship more productive so she understands you are trying to be constructive.
I doubt that any of the above will make matters worse if, as you say, the relationship is at breaking point, and might well improve things.
Miranda Kennett is an independent coach.
If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, email: firstname.lastname@example.org