Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I’ve been at a new job for three months. In the past month, my direct supervisor has started to act oddly toward me: not looking at me when she answers questions, monosyllabic responses, not initiating conversations with me. I know she’s not been feeling well, but she talks cheerfully to other longer-term employees. I’m feeling uneasy and hurt about it.

I’ve asked for a check-in meeting, but I don’t know how to bring this up. Can you suggest some words that will get at the issue without going into emotions?

A: Well, first, before you talk to her directly, I’d do some reflection to see if you can figure out what might be going on. Can you think of anything that happened about a month ago that might have changed things?

I want to be really clear: Even if you did something that triggered this, a good manager wouldn’t handle it this way. If she has a problem or concern with something you’ve done or are doing, she should tell you that directly. But there are plenty of managers — there are plenty of people — who aren’t direct when they need to be.

So, with that caveat in place: Sometimes when someone reacts this way (monosyllabic responses, not initiating conversations, and not looking at you when she answers you), it’s because you’ve been communicating in a way that irritates them. Any chance that you’re interrupting her when she looks busy? Interrupting her multiple times a day? Having lengthy conversations when she’s giving cues that she wants to wrap up? Doing something else annoying, like pushing ideas that she doesn’t want you working on, or putting her on the defensive about decisions she’s made? In other words, is there anything going on that might make her (rightly or wrongly) want to limit her communications with you?

It’s also true that a bad manager may act like this if they’ve started having worries about your work and are avoiding dealing with it. Any chance a project went awry around the time that this started? Are you continuing to get good feedback?

I want to be clear that I’m not implying you’re at fault for this, and I definitely don’t want to make you paranoid that the problem is you. But given the sudden change in her behavior, it’s worth trying to figure out if something like this could be at the root of it.

If you reflect on all this and come up with nothing, then I think your next step is to talk to her. I’d start by asking her how she thinks you’re doing overall. It’s possible that you’ll get some data from her answer to that — either that she has concerns she hadn’t raised yet, or an enthusiastic enough response that it will put some of your worries to rest.

But if that still leaves you feeling uncertain, you could try asking, “Is there anything that I could do to be communicating better with you? Are the systems that I’ve been using working well, or would you like me to do anything differently there?”

But after that, I’d try just giving it a bit more time. If she hasn’t been feeling well, it’s possible that she’s been more cheerful with the people she knows better simply because those are more comfortable relationships (again, not good, but a thing that can happen).

But if you wait a while and still continue to see it, then yes, at that point I think you have to ask more directly. I’d say it this way: “I might be misinterpreting, but have I done something wrong or is there something you’d like me to be doing differently? I really enjoy working with you, but I’ve gotten the sense that you’re not as eager to spend time talking with me as you are with others on our team, and if it’s because of anything I’m doing, I’d so appreciate the chance to know and work on changing it.” (Frankly, you could skip the other conversation and just start here, but the earlier approach might get you what you need.)

If this also gets you nowhere and the coldness continues, then you’re facing a decision about whether this is the right place for you to stay. I’d pay particular attention to what kind of feedback you’re getting on your work, whether you’re getting feedback at all, what kind of projects you’re getting, and whether over time she seems interested in your development. If she’s not giving you what you need in those areas, it may be that the relationship is just never going to be one that benefits your career; in that case, you’d need to weigh that against whatever other benefits you’re getting from the job. But I wouldn’t go there just yet; try the above and see where that gets you first.

Q: My boss left my performance evaluation on the office printer

My boss was working on my annual performance evaluation and printed a copy for her records to a community printer. The problem is, she didn’t go pick it up. She printed it late Friday afternoon and it sat there all weekend until Monday morning when a fellow coworker brought it to me, thinking I had printed it. When my boss arrived at around 10:30 a.m., which is her normal time, she asked me if I “found something” on the printer. I replied, “You mean my evaluation?” She said yes, and I gave it to her and explained I did not find it but it was brought to me and that I was unhappy because half the office would have read it. She took it, said sorry, and walked away. No one would admit it, but I am pretty sure half the office did read it, with the other half being told about it.

I am very upset, and I feel the situation calls for more than a shrug and insincere sorry from my boss. How would you handle this, both from my perspective and my boss’s? My evaluation was positive, which helps the situation a little, but I still feel … violated, I guess, is the best word.

A: It sounds like she was a little cavalier about it, and I agree she should have sounded like she took it more seriously … but other than a more serious-sounding apology (“oh my goodness — I hadn’t intended to do that; I’m so sorry about that”), there’s not really more that she could do. She made a mistake, she should take it seriously and let you know she regrets it, but it wouldn’t make sense for her to zap everyone’s memories or give you a bigger raise or anything like that.

That said, I can definitely understand why you’re weirded out; this is a document dissecting your performance that wasn’t intended for anyone but you and your boss to see. Hopefully any coworkers who saw it didn’t stand there and study it, and if they did, they’re really at fault for doing that.

These questions are adapted from ones that originally appeared on Ask a Manager. Some have been edited for length.

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