They say there are only three certain things in life: death, taxes, and your boss getting mad at you at one point or another. Okay, I may have added that last one in myself, but it's true: as much as you’d like to avoid it, having your manager get ticked off at you is practically inevitable. We’re human, we make mistakes, and sometimes, we are going to rub people the wrong way.
But if the thought of that fills you with dread, don’t worry — you don’t need to spend every day at work bracing for an eventual screw-up. With the right damage control strategy, you’ll have a plan of action down pat before you begin to falter. And that, in turn, won’t just help you smooth things over quickly — it’ll also help prevent a lot of unnecessary anxiety along the way. Whether you’re prepping for the future or in the doghouse right now, the tips below will help you navigate the trickiest of situations with your boss.
1. Forget the Blame Game
When you make a mistake, your knee-jerk reaction is often to deflect the blame away from yourself. But that’s “one of the most common reasons managers get annoyed or frustrated with direct reports,” says Wendi Weiner, Resume Writer & Career Transition Coach. “Direct reports will approach managers with problems and point the fingers at the wrongdoer, while also shaming him/her in a very defensive way. In the end, that makes you look like a bully and someone who can’t play nice during recess.” And ultimately, that “will worsen an already bad situation,” Weiner says. “Engaging in a path of blame and shame is going to cause more anger in the workplace, and less cohesiveness.”
Instead, Weiner advises owning up your mistakes. Admit your behavior, and couple it with an effective apology that consists of acknowledging how your boss was impacted by your actions and apologizing for that, making sure to not sound too much like you’re excusing or explaining away your actions.
2. Address Issues Head-On
Another common strategy for dealing with an angry manager is to simply bury your head in the sand. But it doesn't work for ostriches, and it won’t work for you. After all, you can only avoid a coworker for so long — and when that person is your direct manager, it becomes even more difficult. Beyond that, directly addressing an issue will likely stop your manager from assuming the worst and allow them to see it from your perspective.
“The key to any successful business or personal relationship is empathy, communication, and addressing issues at the forefront,” Weiner says. “The best thing you can do as a direct report is to directly communicate with your boss and be proactive in handling the situation.”
You’ll want to avoid becoming overly emotional or playing the victim, but if you can begin an open, honest dialogue about what happened and why, you’ll be one step closer to finding common ground and putting the bad blood behind you.
3. Come Up With Your Own Solution
While reaching out to your boss is important, you don’t want to give the impression that you think it’s entirely on them to help you find your way out of a mess. “Managers are solutions-oriented professionals and want to see their direct reports hone in on a problem and offer a solution,” Weiner says.
Besides, managers often have a lot on their plate — they usually have their own day-to-day responsibilities in addition to overseeing yours. Because of that, they usually “want to deal with the bigger issues, not [minuscule] disagreements in the workplace,” according to Weiner. So the more heavy lifting you can do to resolve an issue, the less work it is for them (and the more they'll appreciate you for it!).
Before you even approach your boss, come up with at least a couple of ideas about how you could make things right. Even if you’re not totally sure that those are the right courses of action, the fact that you bring them up will demonstrate thoughtfulness and proactivity. And, of course, your manager can serve as a gut-check before you take any next steps.
4. Figure Out How to Avoid Making the Same Mistake Again
An error on its own is usually not a huge deal, but the more often it occurs, the harder it is for your manager to forgive and forget. That’s why ensuring you don’t make the same mistake twice (or more) is vital.
One of the most common examples is under-delivering on a project/task or missing a deadline. Fortunately, there’s a relatively easy fix. “If you cannot meet a deadline in a timely fashion or at a time in which you promised to deliver the project, advise your manager ahead of [time],” Weiner says. They may be able to help you “re-prioritize and still attempt to meet the deadline,” offer to take on some of your additional work or push the deadline back.
Whatever your specific flub was, think about why it happened and what could have been done differently, then try and establish processes to safeguard against it happening again. And finally, don’t sweat it too much. Your boss doesn’t expect you to be perfect — they just want to see dedication and improvement. And if you can demonstrate that, you’ll be in their good books.