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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

6 Steps for Dealing With a Boss Who Doesn’t Understand What You Do

person sitting in a conference room talking with their boss
Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Whether you’re just starting out or have been in the working world for more years than you care to count, chances are you report to somebody. If you’re lucky, that somebody has walked in your shoes, knows what you do, and gets what it takes to actually do the job. But what if that’s not the case? What if you find yourself with a boss who doesn’t understand what you do or, worse, doesn’t care to find out?

Before you panic, consider this: It’s not necessarily the end of the world if your boss hasn’t been in your specific role before. And in fact, the higher up you move in your career, the more likely you are to report to someone who hasn't done your exact job. Throughout my own marketing career, I often reported to higher ups who were financial wizards and masters in creating Excel pivot tables, but who didn’t even have a personal Facebook page, let alone a clue about the nuances of crafting social media campaigns.

The bigger problem arises if your boss isn’t even interested in understanding what you do, doesn’t value what you do, doesn’t trust you to evaluate what you need to do to succeed in your role, or doesn’t realize what you contribute to company goals.

In the short run, you may be expected to do things without the time or resources you need. In the long run, the disconnect could make for a frustrating relationship with your boss and other colleagues and potentially even stall your career growth.

It’s demoralizing, for sure. But remember that your boss might not have bad intentions. Maybe they’re struggling because it’s their first time in a managerial position and they need you to help them understand your role. You can turn this into a win-win situation—not by getting your boss to understand what you do on a micro level, but by getting them to rely on you and support you, your work, and your career.

Here are six things you can do to turn things around when you suspect your boss doesn’t get it:

1. Be Sure

To start with, don’t assume. Just because your boss may not have hands-on experience in the latest digital widgets or doesn’t praise you for the mountain of work you do, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re clueless. Your boss isn’t supposed to be in the weeds; rather, it’s their job to see the bigger picture.

So take the time to figure out whether your boss really doesn’t get what you do or how you fit in. Here are some ways to go about it:

  • Do your research. Google your boss. What’s their background? They might have more hands-on experience than you realize in roles like yours. Or not. Either way, you can use this information to inform how you communicate.
  • Ask colleagues. Others who’ve worked with your boss may offer up some insight. Tap into those resources. You can frame it as a request for advice: “Hey, from your experience, what's the best way to fill Marta in on what I’m working on and get her buy-in and support?”
  • Go to the source! As a manager, it’s so refreshing to have a direct report say to you: “Hey, I know you’re frying bigger fish, so I don’t want to waste your time with details you already know, so stop me if I’m getting in the weeds,” or “Hey, I know you hired me to handle XYZ, and I’m hoping I can tap into your experience.” And once you have their attention, start explaining what’s involved in what you’re working on.

2. Ask for Help the Right Way

Remember, it’s actually OK if your boss isn’t fluent in the minute details of your role. What’s more important is that they can help and support you—whether it’s by giving you more resources, clearing other obligations off your plate to allow you to focus on top priorities, or just by listening and problem-solving with you. But you have to know how to ask.

Communication is critical. The key is to approach your boss when they are free and open to giving you their full attention. Schedule a time—15 minutes (30 at the most)—when you and your boss can meet one-on-one. Inviting them outside the office for coffee has always worked for me. In my experience, it serves to put your boss in a more receptive state, and with all they have going on, your offer to give them a break can go a long way. It also helps to eliminate the possibility of other priorities interrupting your time together.

Do your homework prior to sitting down at the meeting. Pick one thing you do—a specific and immediate task that’s clearly needed to deliver on your boss’s bigger picture goals—that you need help with in some way. Practice a 30-second pitch of the problem along with a clear ask: Are you unsure about which of two routes to take? Do you need some input from other team members? Do you need a day with no meetings to do deep work on something that requires focus? Whatever it is, make sure you can be specific.

Your boss will respond in one of two ways:

  1. They’ll ask you questions and demonstrate a desire to know more so that they can, indeed, understand better and help guide you. They may offer suggestions. They may confess that they have no idea what you’re talking about, and that’s OK. This response is ideal for you to discuss what you do and elaborate on the details, always with an eye on why it matters to their goals. It’s your job to help them see you and your value.
  2. They’ll get flustered or distracted and tell you to figure it out on your own—not because they want to provide you with a professional development opportunity, but because they don’t have the courage to admit they don’t know and don’t care enough to try to figure it out. When your boss won’t offer you anything in the way of advice or even curiosity, you can be pretty confident that you do, indeed, work for a boss who doesn’t get it—and doesn’t want to get it.

3. Understand How Your Work Contributes to Company Goals

Your boss has their marching orders from the higher ups. They’re doing their best to drive results. Good leaders prioritize, plan, and communicate. There’s a purpose to what they do and how they go about doing it. Your job is to learn what matters to your boss, your boss’s bosses, and to the overall mission of your organization and its stakeholders—and then make sure you ladder up to it. In other words, make sure you understand how what you’re doing is contributing to larger goals.

Every company has an overarching mission. What do you and your department do to help realize it? So for example, if the mission is “to become the market leader in XYZ,” your company might aim to increase sales 10% year-over-year. If you’re an account executive, you might be responsible for a portion of that increase. If you’re an engineer, your team might contribute to the goal by coding and testing new features that the sales side can use to upsell old clients and entice new ones.

Keep working on breaking things down to get to clear, actionable, and attainable objectives that you can focus on.

4. And Then Be Your Own Cheerleader

It’s not enough for you to know how what you’re doing is important to the overall success of your team, department, and company. You have to make sure your boss knows it, too. So you can’t be shy about your achievements, and you should try to frame them in terms of how they contribute to your boss’s goals and those of the entire organization.

I know, I know: Self-promotion may not be your thing. And we all hope that others will just notice our good work without us having to “boast” about it. But the truth is that if you do a great job, but nobody knows about it, it can’t help you further your career.

If you and your boss aren’t meeting on a regular basis, either weekly or bi-weekly, start doing so immediately. Get on their calendar—here’s how to ask for regular check-ins.

If your company has stated revenue targets and departmental goals, use those facts to start off your one-on-one conversation: “I’m so glad you could meet with me, [Boss’s Name]. I know that the company is looking to XYZ by the end of the year. As you know, our department is supporting that goal with ABC, and I’ve been working with cross-functional teams to deliver on [name a key driver]. I’ve put together some numbers for you and am excited about [whatever you’re excited about].”

Don’t just say it, write it down in a clear, concise document you share with your boss during your meeting or in an email you send as a follow up. List out the overall company goals, your team’s contributions, and what you as an individual have done to help realize those goals. And don’t just list off daily tasks you do. You need to frame them up as measurable accomplishments. How did your tasks contribute to the bottom line? How did you streamline processes? How have you helped shave spending or foster teamwork? Guide your boss to see the value in what you do and realize just how much you make them shine.

5. Ask Your Colleagues to Pass on Their Praise

If your boss isn’t willing to hear from you directly, then your next step is to let others do the talking for you. Tap into the power of your internal network. Leverage the opinions of those at work who see firsthand all that you do.

Whenever you work on a project and a colleague compliments you, ask them to share their thoughts with your direct supervisor. Do the same with customers and external audiences you might serve. It’s as simple as saying something like, “Hey, thank you. I love working with you and your team. Do you think you could send a quick note to my boss about how well we’ve worked together and what we’ve accomplished? It’ll go a long way coming from you.”

Whether they do or don’t give a testimonial on your behalf to your boss, make sure you collect all of these accolades and keep them handy. And don’t wait until your annual performance review to share them with your manager. Make it a practice monthly to talk about how co-workers throughout the company value your efforts. If you can’t get these updates into your regular one-on-one meetings (or you were unsuccessful setting those meetings up), a brief email update can deliver your news, too.

6. Be Realistic

What if, despite your best efforts, you still can’t get your boss to understand, help, value, or even care about what you do?

The only one you can change is you. If you’ve done everything you can to help bring your boss up to speed, and you still can’t get them to acknowledge, understand, or care about you and what you do, then it might be time to think about moving on from this role. You don’t want to keep wasting your talents on people who don’t deserve you.

Clueless bosses and rudderless companies are a reality. But they don’t have to be your reality. Some people will never understand or appreciate what you have to offer. That’s a hard truth to swallow, but it’s OK because other people will appreciate you. It’s hard having to start over and find another job, but it’s even harder banging your head against the wall trying to get others to see what you’re worth.

So take a deep breath, and start looking for your next gig. Just make sure you do your best to evaluate the company culture and your prospective boss’s management style before you accept an offer. You’ll thank yourself for moving on in the long run. And your new company and boss will be thanking their lucky stars for having found you.