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Avoiding Conflict with Your Supervisor

by Ryan Guina

I’ve worked in several different professional environments in my career – the military, consulting, and now as a contractor on a large project. One constant I have seen is the conflict between supervisors and their employees.

Don’t get me wrong, most supervisors are trying to do their job and do what is best for the company. But there are always some supervisors who like to make work hard for their employees. Why? It can be a pure power play, to hide their ineptitude, to cover up their lack of work ethic, it could be pride, or it may just be personal. There is no definitive list of reasons.

Common traps include making you look bad, changing assignments at the last minute, changing due dates to make you miss an important deadline, taking credit or your work, lying to you or making you look like a liar, spreading rumors, etc. Again, the list is limitless. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to help avoid conflict with your supervisor.

How to Avoid Conflict With Your Supervisor

The first thing you need to recognize is what is happening, even if you don’t understand why. Look for patterns or signs that you are being singled out and that this isn’t your supervisor’s way of treating everyone. It’s a lot more difficult to avoid conflict if your supervisor treats everyone the same way. Once you determine there is a pattern, try some of the steps below. You will find that not all of them will apply to you, and in some cases you will need to think out of the box. If you have additional tips to avoid conflict or have stories you wish to share, please leave them in the comments section after the article.

Talk to your supervisor.

Try to schedule a meeting with your supervisor to discuss the issue. Many people prefer to avoid conflict once it is out in the open. The key to this step is not to bring emotion to the meeting. Reiterate that your only goal is to help the team and ask for ways that you can improve your performance or provide more value. You will get a lot further if you take the approach of being a team player.

Avoid conflict and gossip.

Try to remove all emotion from the situation – regardless of what the supervisor says or does. Do what is asked without griping or pushing back. Don’t give the supervisor a reason to say or do anything that can be used against you. You may find it helps if you can keep conversation to a minimum and respond with minimal, “yes/no” responses, and avoid unnecessary opportunities for conflict. At the same time, don’t gossip about your supervisor or anyone else. If you have an issue with someone, take it to them personally. Don’t air your issues to your coworkers.

Make your supervisor look good.

Your boss is less likely to pick on you when you make him or your team look good. Contribute to meetings and projects, and be sure to spread the credit to the team. Drop your supervisor’s name in a favorable manner if it is merited. Avoid correcting your boss in front of his manager or a group of people unless it is necessary. Many times you can pull him or her aside and give the correct information afterward.

What about the supervisor who wants to take credit for your work? This can be tricky, and often the best way to handle this is to take credit before there is credit to be given. For example, carbon copy multiple team members and interested parties on progress reports, including your supervisor’s boss if you can get away with it. Blind carbon copy works great here too. You can also speak up in meetings regarding progress or give updates on a new feature you created. The key is to do it in a way that keeps everyone informed of what you are doing, but doesn’t come across as bragging.

Don’t be a target.

Arrive to work a few minutes early, stay a few minutes late, take short lunches, avoid hanging out in the break room or taking long breaks, etc. Leave a note on your office door or on a dry erase board in your cubicle when you are in a meeting or have an appointment. Be sure to write down the time you will return, and leave a pen for others to write a note for you. In short, don’t give your boss any reasons to call you out.

Document everything.

A common supervisor trap is to put you in a position where it is your word against his. Unless you have proof to the contrary, you aren’t going to win. So document everything. Archive your e-mails and files to your hard drive, and back them up to a thumb drive if you need to. That way your supervisor’s claims against you can be quickly corrected. Carry a notebook to meetings and everywhere else you go. Be sure to write down important dates, assignments, requirements, or anything else that is relevant to your task. You will then have written proof and it is no longer your word against his word.

*The purpose of this isn’t to be smug or trap your supervisor; remember we are trying to avoid conflict. So instead of throwing this back in his or her face, try gently reminding your supervisor that you believe the information you have is correct and you have it documented. Your supervisor will most likely stop trying to use this trap against you once he figures out he can’t win.

Repeat questions during conversations.

This goes hand in hand with the documentation. Repeat instructions or tasks that are given to you during or at the end of the conversation. Be sure to repeat the key information such as requirements, due date, and other important issues. This is another place where your notebook comes in handy. Be sure to jot down this information in front of your supervisor. This will demonstrate that you are paying attention making an effort to meet deadlines for the tasks you are assigned. It also gives you documentation to prove you were on target and makes it less likely your supervisor will try to move dates or change assignments on you in order to make you look bad.

Contact Human Resources of your supervisor’s boss

You want to avoid escalating the matter if possible. It’s messy and can lead to more tension in the workplace. But sometimes it is unavoidable. In most cases you want to leave escalation as a last result, however, if your supervisor is breaking laws or company policies, you are well within your rights to escalate the matter.

Equal Opportunity Rights and Federal Laws

The tips above refer to dealing with a boss that can be overbearing or just difficult to deal with. If you believe your manager is breaking federal equal opportunity employment laws, then you need to document your case and contact your human resources department.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces discrimination against:

  • employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin;
  • age discrimination which protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older;
  • individuals with disabilities and pregnant women;
  • (see overview of laws and EEOC home page for more information).

Individuals who file a discrimination complaint are also protected against retaliation. Just keep in mind it is also against the law to file a false claim.

Do you have any other tips to avoid supervisor conflict, or do you have any stories to share? If so, leave them in the comments section.


Published or updated October 12, 2009.
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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Hank

I really see conflicts like this with my own boss because of the generation gap. My boss just does not understand people of a younger generation that are moving up into middle management now. My co-workers and I were blown away the other day when my boss said that he did not know what a Nintendo Gameboy was.

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2 Ryan

Yeah, the generation gap can be a big cause of conflict – usually because of misunderstandings or miscommunication. I have experienced this as well, and it can be a tough one to overcome. Best advice I have here is to try and see things from the other person’s perspective.

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3 Miranda

I think that avoiding gossip is one of the most important things. What you say has a way of getting around. Additionally, what you listen to (even if you never actually say anything) has a way of getting around.

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4 DR

I’ve found that if you can make yourself indispensable, it will go a long way toward a good (or at least tolerable) relationship with your boss. That said, sometimes you have a boss so bad that you just have to leave and find another job. That happened to me once. The good news is that I recognized it early and took my time finding the next job.

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5 Financial Samurai

Very good points Ryan. As a supervisor myself, I have to agree with all of the above.

The younger generation needs to respect their elders, stop whining, come in first, leave last, work hard, and be hungry!

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6 jp

i have a good one, my boss wants to run the business via text or emails.I think that is useless;this is one the things i dislike about my work place.he has no interpersonal skills ever.It is hard to actually be around this kind of environment.

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7 Rod

I believe in calling things by their right names. The word “conflict” suggests something mutual — “con” means “together”. You are not describing “conflict”. You are describing harassment and dishonesty.

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8 Ryan

Rod, the etymology of the word conflict comes from the Latin word conflictus, which means the act of striking together. One of the definitions of conflict, according to Merriam-Webster, is “mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands.” So I’m calling it what it is.

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