How To Deal With A Boss Who Sucks At Listening To You

You can quit, but there are strategies to try first.
Bosses who are bad listeners are frustrating to deal with. But figuring out their goals and talking to their past direct reports can help.
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Bosses who are bad listeners are frustrating to deal with. But figuring out their goals and talking to their past direct reports can help.

Bad bosses come in all kinds of flavors –- from incompetent to just plain jerk -– but one of the most frustrating kinds of managers is the one who never seems to listen to you. Your ideas, requests and complaints are ignored or rejected. Everything you say seems to go in one ear and out the other.

At a certain point, not feeling heard can take a toll on your psyche. In a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 84% of U.S. workers say poorly trained people managers create a lot of unnecessary stress. The workers’ biggest recommendation on what their bosses could improve? Their communication skills.

Ideally, good bosses take the time to proactively ask what’s working and what’s not in your one-on-one meetings with them.

But when your boss is not listening to you, you have two options: Either do nothing and hope your boss realizes you are unhappy, or you can take actions to make yourself heard.

Jennifer Tardy, a career coach and diversity and inclusion consultant, said too often she sees employees who avoid dealing with their boss and are not comfortable talking in a direct way or in a timely manner to them.

“Employees wait too long to have the courageous conversation and now the situation has compounded,” Tardy said. “At this point, rather than have a rational, logical conversation with their manager, they explode ― often with emotion leaving the core message to get lost in.”

There are helpful steps you can take about feeling unheard long before it gets to that point.

Here’s what you can do to salvage a relationship with a boss who is not listening to you –- and when to decide enough is enough.

1. Diagnose whether they don’t listen to anyone, or just you.

Gorick Ng, a career adviser at Harvard University and the author of “The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right,” said that when employees deal with bosses who are not understanding them, they may want to jump straight to quitting as the “path of fastest relief.” But one way to figure out if you can save the relationship is to take the time to understand where your boss is coming from.

“Whatever you're dealing with, someone else has dealt with before.”

- Gorick Ng

To do that, first try talking to people who work with or used to work with your boss. “Whatever you’re dealing with, someone else has dealt with before,” Ng said.

He suggested asking questions about how your boss prefers to communicate, such as “What’s worked with this person before? Are they someone who needs to see it on paper? Are they someone who needs a nice long pro/con list? Are they someone who needs a mockup or draft? Are they someone who needs to hear it from a certain person?”

“What you’re really trying to figure out is if this is a problem that you can solve,” Ng said.

After you do this bit of research, you should have an idea what will get your boss’ attention, be it project deadlines or influential colleagues. If your manager listens to what a certain colleague says, for example, you could focus on asking that colleague to be the whisper in your boss’ ear about your ideas, Ng said.

2. When you bring it up to your boss, make sure that you have a solution in mind.

Once you diagnose your boss’ deal, you can have a conversation. But don’t simply complain. Get specific about what actions made you feel unheard, and bring solutions that could address the problem.

Tardy said you should ask yourself what specific actions your boss took that led to this. What specific actions would my boss need to take for us to remedy the challenge? That way, when you bring it up with your boss, you can be clear on their role in the problem and in the solution.

And then after you acknowledge how you felt unheard, have a solution on what could make your joint communication style better.

“Many times when we have courageous conversations, we leave it to the other party to figure out what action to take to reach the solution,” Tardy said. “The more specific you are on the action you want from your boss, the more clearly you can articulate it to them so they can take the action.”

You can bring up solutions with language such as, “Hey I know we’re trying to achieve this. I was thinking of this option or this option or this option. These are the pros and cons. My suggestion is that we might want to consider option B. What is your reaction?” Ng said.

Or, the solution can be brought up as simply as something like, ”‘Would it be helpful if I did ‘blank’?’” Ng added.

3. If talking and suggesting solutions fails, it’s time for change ― either your boss or your job.

If you’ve exhausted these options, and nothing has changed, then it’s time to consider switching it up ― perhaps out of the job altogether.

First, you can try leaving your particular manager if you still want the role.

“Change doesn’t mean leaving the company. Maybe it means leaving the manager, but staying in the department or company,” Tardy said. “Escalation means talking to your manager’s manager. Oftentimes, messages that go unheard from an employee become clearly understood by a leader.”

But if leaving your inattentive manager is not a possibility, then it really may be time to start looking for a new job where you and your ideas will be heard. And then, at this new job, you can hash out communication styles with your boss up front.

“If you make it very clear that you need to feel like your ideas are heard, and define what that looks like when it doesn’t happen, it will be easier for you to bring up three, six or 12 months into the role with the manager,” said career coach Kaitlyn Buckheit, who specializes in career transitions. “You won’t be bringing up the topic for the first time.”