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Managing a Difficult Supervisory Relationship

Staci Daniels-Sommers, MSW
By Staci Daniels-Sommers, MSW
July 25, 2017
An image of a woman talking to her boss.

Supervisory relationships, though different depending on one’s role at the university, are a central part of our work-life experience. I have been fortunate to work with many great supervisors and department chairs. I have also experienced times when my supervisor and I have struggled to be on the same page. Conflict within the supervisory relationship is something that happens to most people from time to time, but it can be challenging and stressful to manage. I have learned a few interesting lessons about how to navigate and, when possible, work through challenges within supervisory relationships.


Gain Some Insight

If you’re beginning to notice some stress or tension within the relationship with your supervisor, take some time to reflect on the contributing factors. Is it a clashing of styles? Is there a misunderstanding about role expectations? Are there unresolved feelings about a particular incident? Is your department in the process of organizational change? Getting clear on the cause of the issues can clarify what questions to ask and what actions may need to be taken to move forward.


Reflect on Your Behavior

As the saying goes, “it takes two to tango.” When there’s tension in a relationship, we are always a contributor and participant in that tension. It’s also true that we do not have control over anyone else’s behavior, just our own.

It’s important for us to be honest with ourselves about 1) what we may be doing to make the situation worse (even if we think it’s “the right thing to do") and 2) how can we change our behavior to improve the situation. It can be uncomfortable to change our behavior, especially when we feel our supervisor may be falling short. The age old question of “do you want to be right or be happy?” comes into play here. Depending on the situation, the answer may be different, but it’s important to get clear and realistic about the effects of our behavior.


Right Size Your Expectations

Supervisors are also on a professional journey and in their own life learning process. Some are more aware of their growth areas than others. Sometimes, we can support our supervisors in growing the strengths and improving their weakness. Other times, just knowing that our supervisors have a weakness in a particular area can help us right-size our expectations.


Manage Up

This “buzz word” concept was trendy a few years ago and was both praised and criticized by many. When done respectfully, with the focus being to help everyone do their best in the work environment, it can be quite helpful. When you get down to it, managing up is assessing the needs of your supervisor and attempting to address those needs as a supervisee. Knowing your supervisor’s style or challenges that they may face fact from their reporting line can help you understand why conflict may arise and prevent challenging situations. Adapting to your supervisor's needs may require you to adjust your work style, but I’ve found that flexibility is essential in higher education. Those who can roll with changes are often those who whether difficult situations the best.


Recognize and Respect Power Difference

At the end of the day, supervisors have to assess performance, provide feedback, and support goal setting. There is a power difference in the relationship, and it’s important to recognize and respect that. This means doing the best we can to be respectful in our interactions and acknowledging that there is a chain of command. 


Know your Resources

It’s important to understand your institution’s resources and culture around managing difficult work relationships. Some institutions have dedicated offices or programs for helpful staff and departments manage issues that arise in the workplace. Other institutions manage conflict more informally or have specific norms around managing (or not managing) conflict. If the difficulty with your relationship violates the code of conduct, local, state, or federal law, be sure to document the incidents and get support for reporting the issue. Getting advice and support from a colleague you trust may help you feel more comfortable in navigating a very difficult situation.


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Staci Daniels-Sommers is a licensed psychotherapist, educator, and diversity consultant, with over ten years of experience in higher education, nonprofits, and start-ups. She has led several large-scale civic engagement and community-based learning programs at both large and mid-sized research universities. She is also a trained intergroup dialogue facilitator and had consulted with K-12 schools and universities, supporting efforts to implement diversity and social justice curriculum. She has a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Michigan with a focus on practice in the school setting.


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