By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

Two women looking at a laptop screen.

Photo by Kobu Agency on Unsplash

In the best-case scenario, you will work for someone who intentionally supports your growth and development, provides ongoing and supportive feedback and coaching, advocates for you, and routinely discusses your strengths and interests and career path and how these align with your work. That’s the best-case scenario. And, the reality is, most of us don’t work for people like that. It’s not because your manager is a terrible person, or because they’re bad at their job, although some certainly are. More likely, it’s because they either haven’t been trained on how to be an effective manager, or, they simply have too much on their plate to do the work of growing and developing their people while also meeting their manager’s expectations. Or, worst-case scenario, both.

Here’s the thing: you can spend your time banging your head against the wall about this situation, growing more and more frustrated and demoralized over time. And the end result will be a giant headache. Or, you can spend your time identifying ways that you can take ownership for your own growth and development and your own path, and seek out the support and guidance that you need, elsewhere. Just because your manager doesn’t support you in these ways doesn’t mean you don’t deserve it, or that you shouldn’t look for it.

Here are a few tips to do just that, and maybe even build a more productive relationship with your manager, along the way.

Set goals for your work and your growth. Just because your manager doesn’t help you set goals for your work and your development doesn’t mean you can’t do this work for yourself. In fact, the sign of a strategic, engaged employee is one who is able to assess current and future opportunities and identify steps to make forward progress. Keep it to a 3-6 month timeframe, and no more than 3-5 strategic goals. And if you’re not sure on whether you’re working on the right things in the right ways, bring the goals to your manager and ask for their feedback.

Seek out feedback and coaching. Speaking of feedback, we all need regular check-ins on what we are doing and how we can improve. Indeed, part of developing your emotional intelligence is growing in your ability to assess your own strengths and growth opportunities. And, remember that your manager isn’t the only person who is equipped to provide helpful guidance and feedback to support you. Get in a habit of regularly asking trusted colleagues for feedback on your work, your presence and interpersonal skills, your productivity skills, and your strengths and growth areas. Pay attention to themes that start to emerge and create goals to fill your gaps.

Build relationships with mentors and sponsors. We all need a diverse network of strong and weak ties, which should include both mentors and sponsors who will support us, challenge us, and advocate on our behalf. And, there is little value in sitting back and waiting for those people to come to you (they won’t). You do the work to build those relationships. Spend some time assessing the people you already know in your network who could serve in these roles and work to build those relationships further. And, take some time to assess your gaps, and identify places and people which could fill these. Most importantly, remember that true relationship-building isn’t transactional, takes time, and requires giving as much as you take.

Share your process with your manager. One way to build a more effective relationship with your manager is to consistently share the work you are doing to grow and develop yourself, ask for their feedback and input, and give them an opportunity to be part of the process. Give them the opportunity to be a more supportive manager by asking for what you need, from them and from others. In doing so, you will demonstrate your commitment to your work, and help them to be a better manager, as well.

Pay attention. Someday, you too will be in a position of leadership, whether it’s leading a team or a project. Having a less-than-effective manager doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them; in fact, sometimes the best lessons on leadership and management will come from those places where you feel like people fail to meet your expectations. Take note of what you do and don’t like about others’ management styles, and why, and identify those behaviors you would like to emulate, both now and in the future.

Seek other opportunities. Finally, if you really do feel like your manager is stifling your ability to make progress in your career, and impeding your growth and development, remember that you always have a choice. You get to decide where you will work, and where you just won’t. At the end of the day, there is only so much that you can do to make them better at their jobs. So don’t spend too much time beating your head against that wall. Instead, think about the type of environment that would truly motivate and engage you, and do the work to seek that out, for your next step.