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When the boss gets the cold shoulder

Aug 30 2018 14:46
Amanda Visser

There are few relationships that have not experienced the “silent treatment” or “cold shoulder”. This is when you are being ignored as punishment for saying or doing something wrong. 

In the workplace this can become quite uncomfortable, especially when it affects the relationship between co-workers and the boss. 

There is an abundance of articles in the public domain about what to do if the boss gives you the cold shoulder. However, there are not so many about the boss getting the silent treatment and what they should do when it happens. 

“If you perceive you are getting the cold shoulder, you are probably right. This situation is particularly common for leaders new to a team,” says Art Petty, leadership and management author. 

He wrote in The Balance, an online source of personal finance and career information, that in many instances it is a “trust issue”.

Andile Kwakweni, life coach and MD of Alulia, says many leaders neglect to start the year with performance planning. 

The team has no clear direction, they do not get the necessary guidance and they seem unable to engage with the manager. 

“There are instances where the manager is quite clear about what he expects of his team, but there is no engagement to follow through on whether they need anything; whether they are able to fulfil the task; whether they need more training; more time or more resources.”

That is when people start disengaging.

“The problem is that nobody wants to talk about it. It is seen as a bit of a taboo – especially if it is a highly politicised environment.”

The cold war 

The manager may have the title, but if a junior employee has more political power they may blatantly ignore the manager, or they may act like they are listening.

It can turn into a cold war. 

Kwakweni also describes circumstances where a manager yields power over their subordinates, but when there is a sudden shift in dynamics the power disappears. 

This often happens with political appointees – where somebody with inadequate skills is appointed based on existing connections, and suddenly yields the power.

“The subordinates are too afraid not to adjust to the new office dynamics. People will also exploit the situation and do whatever they feel like because they know there will be no consequence management.”

Kwakweni remarks that there are always people in a team who are more inclined than others to simply “get on with the job”. Managers who have been “expelled” by the team should consider them the “go-to-people” when things start unravelling. 

“The most common reason why managers fail to engage with their go-to-people is insecurity,” says Kwakweni.

“You do not have to know everything, but identify the experts in your team and show them you trust them. People hide behind their insecurities because they feel vulnerable. Someone who is mature will be able to identify the strengths in the team and harness them to work for the whole team.”

Coming in from the cold 

Petty says few leader want to admit that their team is just going through the motions, but it happens. It may be tempting to look at the people or overall workplace factors as the root causes, but the manager needs to look at themselves first.

“It is incumbent upon you to bring some sense of mission and purpose to the challenges your team faces.”

He warns against the urge to judge or to blame factors outside your control … the leader is responsible for forming and framing the working environment.

“When the people in that environment go quiet on offering ideas, it is time to change your approach.”

Kwakweni says when a manager gets the cold shoulder because they have acted in a way that angered the team or made them feel unworthy it is time to go back to the drawing board.

“Ask the team what went wrong. In many instances you will be surprised to realise that they have been waiting for that moment for the longest time.”

Warming up

However, it is important to create a safe environment for them to express themselves and to get them talking,  says Kwakweni.  

If group sessions are not successful, try individual discussions. 

If the emotions are too charged, it is highly recommended to get someone who can be more objective to open the conversation.

“Make sure they feel safe – they must not feel you are asking them because you want to victimise them. You are asking because you need help.”

The “warming-up phase” must be formalised and followed up with regular feedback meetings in the beginning (once a week) up to once a month when things are going well.

“When we react to a situation where the relationship has gone sour and we address it, we relax when we see change. We tend to think we have solved everything. That is not so,” says Kwakweni.

The manager must remain vigilant about where and when things can go wrong. “We need to nurture the culture where people are able to express themselves and the work gets done. It is a conversation that needs to be there all the time.”

Employees do not have to love their bosses, but everybody needs to be professional. There has to be a culture that allows for that, says Kwakweni. 

This article originally appeared in the 30 August edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.

workplace  |  management  |  employees