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How to Get Respect From the Boss

Dear David,

My boss and I have weekly one-on-one meetings. During these meetings, he frequently takes phone calls from his family, gets up in the middle of a discussion to use his personal restroom, and allows workers to just barge in to talk to him. I’m very frustrated with these interactions but he is the owner of the company and I am a new manager. I’ve discussed it with my peers, but the general consensus is it’s always been this way and he will not change. What can I say to still remain respectful and professional, yet help him understand how devalued this makes me feel?

New Guy

Dear New Guy,

Thanks for your question. As I see it, this may be a difficult situation to change. The owner has a lot of leeway, and you aren’t describing any overtly hostile behaviors. Begin by asking yourself whether you’re accurately reading your boss’s intent.

Examine your Story: You’re telling yourself a story about his behavior—that his actions are intended to disrespect you. As a result, you feel devalued. Ask yourself the following two questions:

• Do you have all the facts you need to be confident your story is true?
• Is there any other, more positive, story that could fit this same set of facts?
Here are two attempts at different stories:

Story #1: From your boss’s perspective, the company is an extension of his home, and his office is his living room. When he invites you in for your weekly chat, it’s as if you are a guest in his home. He’s not trying to make you feel bad. He’s treating you with the same respect he would any one who entered his home.

Story #2: Your boss wants his company to feel like family, where he is the patriarch. As a result, he downplays some of the professional, impersonal, sterile business practices you see in most organizations. Instead, he creates more personal, informal relationships. Meeting with him is like sharing a beer with your father-in-law, when your father-in-law is buying. He sets the agenda, you’re not exactly his equal, and he takes bathroom breaks and family calls when he feels like it. But none of his behavior is intended to offend.

You mention that your peers don’t think your boss will ever change. Do they want him to? Or do they see his behavior as inclusive and welcoming? Are you the only one who is taking offense?

Master Your Story: I will suggest some actions that may help you change your boss’s behavior. But they don’t come with a guarantee. You can’t control your boss. What you can control is your reaction to his behavior. If you can’t master your story—if you can’t find a way to accept your boss’s behavior and feel good about it—then your choice comes down to either convincing your boss to change or leaving his employment.

Get Your Heart Right: Before you take action, stop and ask yourself what you really want long term for yourself, your boss, and the organization. Your initial question focuses too narrowly on how the situation makes you feel. Ideally, the conversation you have with your boss shouldn’t be about you and your feelings. The conversation should be about how to further your boss’s and the company’s priorities as well as your own.

Detail Your Expectations: You are asking for a change in the way your weekly meetings are handled. What exactly do you want? Don’t ask for something vague, like respect. Instead, make your requests very specific, such as: fewer interruptions, shorter meetings, clear agendas, etc. Decide what it is you are asking for.

Make it Motivating: Write down the pluses and minuses of each request. And include your boss’s perspective. For example, what does your boss gain or lose if he stops taking phone calls during your meetings? How would this change help him achieve his goals? Do your best to anticipate the consequences he values, and to weigh them in your balance sheet. Again, focus on consequences to the business and the boss, instead of talking about how his behaviors makes you feel. Your feelings may be fairly low on his list of priorities.

Make it Easy: Do your part to make your meetings more professional. Make calendar appointments that have beginning and end times. Get him agendas in advance, and bring a copy with you. Stick to the agenda as much as possible. At the same time, take care to avoid offending your boss. He may interpret your actions as signaling that you want only a professional relationship, not a friendship.

During the Meeting: At the beginning of the meeting, let your boss know what you’re stepping away from in order to meet with him. This puts some urgency on keeping the meeting on track and ending it on time. Then, when he interrupts your meeting, consider saying, “Let me know when you’re ready to continue, or if you want to reschedule.” Then leave.

I hope there are nuggets within my answer that will help you move forward. Please let me know how you work it out.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

14 thoughts on “How to Get Respect From the Boss”

  1. Ralph

    Disappointed with the response on this one. Sounds like you’re saying that if the boss is being unprofessional and making the person feel devalued it’s OK as long as he doesn’t do it with the INTENT of being disrespectful, and the new guy shouldn’t try to have a conversation with the boss to let the boss know that how the boss is acting is making him feel devalued even if the boss didn’t mean to do that. Also sounds like you’re saying the new guy’s feelings aren’t important if he can’t show specifically how that will affect the bottom line. The new guy didn’t say he thought the boss was being disrespectful. He said he was frustrated, and felt devalued. You don’t have to be treated with disrespect for that to happen. I’ve had bosses like that and it frustrated me too. The last piece of advise was OK. When the boss interrupts the meeting, terminate it and tell him to let you known when he as some time to continue the discussion. I did that about a dozen times before he finally noticed and asked me about it. Then I explained that it appeared that the interruptions were more important than our discussion and my time would better benefit him if I was working on my projects instead of sitting in his office waiting for him to get back to me from his more important tasks.

    1. Susan

      Ralph, your approach, which may have worked for you, seems passive aggressive and disrespectful to the owner/leader. There is an existing culture that the new manager is going to have to navigate that new culture and in the end choose to either have a crucial conversation or leave the situation. I actually really like this article because you need to ask yourself the what-ifs.

  2. davidmaxfield

    Thanks for your input. I didn’t mean to say that the new guy’s feelings aren’t important. But I wanted to emphasize that his feelings might not be important to his boss–the owner. And, if they are not important to the boss, then the new guy has to find a different way to motivate the boss to change.
    I like your point about the boss’ intentions. If the boss isn’t intending to be disrespectful, then perhaps his actions are merely thoughtless. If that’s the case, then discussing them shouldn’t be a problem.
    I’m glad you were able to deal with the situation you faced. It sounds as if you handled it very skillfully.

  3. Jan Cohen

    Where does the meeting take place? The boss’s office? Does it need to be there?
    My work place has room to walk. My manager (and other managers) have their one on ones while walking in the atrium. It is less stressful, and there are less interruptions.
    There may be other locations that you could use, if walking is not an option. Your desk, an empty conference room, a local offsite location.

  4. Alice Kemper

    This was spot on… and love the phrase it’s your story… i call it the story in your head and boy oh boy do those stories often get us off track!
    This is a perfect example of two different sets of expectations for the one on ones. Your advice to re-group and define your expectations and look from both sides is great. There’s also an opportunity for new guy to regroup with the boss by asking the boss to define his expectations, goals, objectives of the one-on-ones. questions to define the expectations. This way there’s no assumptions and easier for new guy to proceed.

  5. Patricia Pitsel

    I thought David’s response was brilliant – especially the two alternate explanations of the bosses’ behavior. Time and time again I coach clients at the beginning of their story by asking – “and what else -what else might explain this story?

  6. Clifford Spoonemore

    very interesting: I had a boss that would refuse to take a phone calls while engaged in a conversation. I asked why? He said that a phone call is the same as someone dropping in. They have to wait their turn.

    So when I drop in on my boss and he receives a phone call I make the decision…. go ahead and take it or not. To let my boss know I will return if need be or our conversation can be concluded.

    There maybe an open door policy, but for me if the door is closed. Then come back. I leave my door open an inch if a person has to drop something off real quick with no conversation. If I don’t want to be interrupted the door is fully closed. I have shared that expectation with those in our office.

    Not knowing the importance of the business. The only item that I would ask to change is the interruption of fellow employees. They should respect the value of a person sitting in front of the boss. And they most likely don’t like it when they are sitting with the boss and others interrupt their conversation.

    I do like that fact that you should ask, “is there a better time so the conversation can be uninterrupted”. It may take some time and effort but the boss will soon know that you just want the one-on-one time to be productive.

  7. Judy

    I think another scenario for consideration on the boss taking bathroom breaks has nothing to do with devaluing an employee but may be the result of a medical condition or side effect from medications.

    1. Gladys

      Good point. Hard to focus on a conversation when your bladder is full.

  8. Sandra Sawle

    Good advice! No one can make you feel inferior (or devalued) without your consent. My approach is usually a simple “when you do ____, I feel ____”, followed by a recommendation for improving the situation. I own my feelings and usually the other person didn’t even realize they were doing the thing that bothered me. We both walk away with more awareness of the other person’s intent or perception.

  9. Cathy W

    My boss is like the this boss and it is because she is brilliant and constantly multitasks. I have been worked with her as she grew the company from 10 to 4000 employees and I have learned to adapt to her style of relating to her employees. From my experience, bosses of this kind do not put a lot of stock into formal meetings; instead as the employee you always need to be prepared for 5-10 minute conversations in the hallway or on the phone where you present your perspective in a clear and direct way in response to the boss’s request for information or ideas. You focus on solutions or projections, not feelings. And it is during these conversations that you explain in a sentence or two how you or your department can contribute and grow within the context of the boss’s current issue. The more you are prepared to talk when the boss wants to talk, the more successful your relationship.

  10. Dale Brochis

    Here’s my take. He’s new, and his first priority is to learn how to communicate with his boss. I would NOT get up and leave if interrupted. I would look at the interruptions and bathroom breaks as things the boss needs to deal with all the time.

    If he doesn’t stop them (because he can’t/chooses not to), just ask the boss – “I see you’re kind of busy now, would another time be better for you?” If the boss says no time is better, then suggest that you hit all topics broadly initially so you can tell him what he needs to hear, and then delve into details. This way he knows you respect his role in his business, are meeting his needs, and will give him everything he needs upfront so if there is an issue he needs to focus on, maybe, JUST MAYBE, he’ll tell someone to come back in 10 minutes.

  11. Dam Seidman

    Shocked at your advice here, it’s very short-sighted. I love your organization and your books are gold. But this statement;

    “…if you can’t find a way to accept your boss’s behavior and feel good about it—then your choice comes down to either convincing your boss to change or leaving his employment.” is what a child would think.

    Every business pro needs to learn how to work with every possible personality. Yet you say change the guy running the company, the one responsible for it’s success, the one signing your paycheck OR you leave?

    In coaching both sales professionals and athletes for 30 years, my starting point in helping others attain greatness is that we all need the mental agility to work with anyone.

    You’re a player who doesn’t like the coach? Get used to it – the yellers, the calm ones, the clinical, the stats-oriented. Winners can work with anyone. Don’t get me wrong, they can move on and do. In fact, part of your right as an elite athlete or business pro is you have the choice to move on. Because you’re employable and successful anywhere.

    But everyone else (meaning 99% of everyone) has to learn to adapt.

    Really disappointed that a fantastic article is marked by one bad piece of advice.

  12. Vernel

    Is he using the boss as a sounding board — bringing things to him that the guy doesn’t need to weigh in on, things that he should just take care of? How might he be contributing to the boss’s inatttention?

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