Software Development

I know my boss doesn’t like me. I can manage, but is this career limiting?

You have three options. In the latest edition of advice column The Lossless Leader, find engineering manager Leemay Nassery's advice on navigating a tricky work relationship with a power imbalance.

There's a better way to manage. (Photo by Jonathan Borba from Pexels)

This is The Lossless Leader, an advice column written by engineering manager Leemay Nassery.

Why call it The Lossless Leader? An engineering leader is someone who inspires their team, communicates well, grows their people to become leaders themselves, removes blockers or painful aspects of their team’s day-to-day, delivers on product requests and so much more. In tech, lossless compression is a technique that does not lose any data in the compression process; it reduces the size of files without losing any information in the file so quality is maintained.

Combining the two: Leaders aren’t perfect. Sometimes they manage to not “lose any data” in the process of leading their organization, and other times it may seem like they’re losing it altogether. We’re naming this column The Lossless Leader because we all admire those leaders who strive to stay true to who they are and the people they serve (their team). They admit fault when necessary, learn from their mistakes, sometimes flourish in difficult situations — all while not losing themself along the way.

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The question: 

“I work within a fairly large organization and I report directly to an executive director who manages a handful of engineering managers and staff engineers. My problem: My boss clearly favors my peers.

I’m fairly competent, do my work, go out of my way (sometimes) to help out, however I have this constant feeling that my boss just doesn’t like me. Is this career limiting?”

The answer:

The ‘90s gifted us some of the best music. Some would say Nirvana, others would say the Foo Fighters, I would say Ace of Base — in particular their track “The Sign.” Please listen to this song as you read this post. Thank you!

Well, well, well. Finally my time has come, to admit … that I have been the “favorite one” at a few points in my career. I’ve also been the not-so-favorite one. Being on both ends of the spectrum does give me a perspective that could lend itself to be somewhat helpful in answering this really good, and really relatable question.

First off, it’s not helpful to have this narrative in your head. It’s a perception you have; the action you take based on this perception is what really matters. Even if it’s true that your manager doesn’t like you, it’s not an empowering mindset. Get rid of it. When you find you’re thinking about your manager, shift your thoughts to those individuals who do support you.

Second, you didn’t mention if you were a manager or individual contributor. If you’re a manager, this could be career limiting for your folks, as you may have more difficulty than your peers with regard to promoting individuals on your team. From experience being the “favorite” one, I can certainly say it was easier to get my engineers promoted. And not only that, but it was also easier to get additional headcount to grow the team, to get projects that are more interesting, etc. It’s always easier when your manager likes you.

Regardless if you’re a manager or individual contributor, to say this bluntly: It’s not ideal that you have this sentiment. There’s that old saying, sometimes the best idea doesn’t win but rather, the best relationship. This is so true, especially in a big organization as you described. There’s bias everywhere. Even when we think we’re not biasing our decisions, we probably are. For instance, sometimes we reach out to someone to ask their opinion because we had a prior connection. That connection could be as simple as having the same sense of humor or liking the same music. It’s human nature, and it takes a lot of work to not fall into these traps as a people leader.

That being said, you have three options:

  • Stay and try to win your manager over.
  • Stay and do the best you can without trying to win over your manager.
  • Leave at some point.

Now, my goal isn’t to persuade you one way or another, but rather give some perspective.

In your question you specifically asked if this is career limiting — well, if your goal is to climb the corporate tech ladder, and if your manager truly isn’t a fan of yours, then it will be harder to get to the next level. I regret to inform you of this reality: Getting promoted is hard, and having a manager who supports you surely makes it easier. Growth doesn’t happen on it’s own, you also need a little help from your manager, peers, etc.

If you decide to leave, don’t rush it. Be picky. Take your time, especially if you, for the most part, enjoy the job.

Leemay Nassery. (Courtesy photo)

If you decide to stay then, seriously, remove that narrative as I suggested earlier. Focus on the good; focus on doing things that will make your resume even more relevant to your next employer. Focus on building relationships with other individuals. Focus on taking action that will help you feel more fulfilled in your job.

One tactic I’ve used when I’ve had a similar sentiment is that I formed relationships with those that my manager did favor. Building those connections led to interesting projects; interesting opportunities that I may have been overlooked for initially, which I assume is one of your concerns. This is something everyone should do: build a network of humans who inspire you, who you also inspire, who will say your name in meetings you’re not in, who you also want to see grow (because supporting others to reach their goals is also fairly fulfilling).

If you decide to stay and try to win your manager over, think about things they care about. Ask them in your 1:1s what’s something they wish they didn’t need to do and if you can help. Or ask them what’s a difficult decision they made recently. The best relationships at work are those where both parties can empathize with each other. People are complicated, and some people are harder to read. Try having (more) empathy for them? You may see them from a different lens once you do.

As the Ace of Base asked in their track, “Where do you belong?” Maybe in this organization, or maybe not.

Submit your question to The Lossless Leader
Series: The Lossless Leader
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