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I work as an software engineering intern in my free time and summers at a small startup. Management has consistently asked me to continue, giving me several raises.

However, for some time my direct manager has been acting coldly towards me. For example, when I left last summer, he ignored my email thanking him and asking him for feedback. He jokes and acts friendly towards other employees but is stone-faced when speaking with me.

It is not inconceivable that I said something that offended him; my company often has passionate discussion during breaks where people vociferously defend their opinions. However, I would have expected him to say something to me if that was the case.

Management is asking me about continuing and I am confused. On one hand, I am generally very happy working at this company, and have good relationships with my coworkers. On the other hand, I don't want to work for someone who is angry at me. I would like to ask my manager point-blank what's wrong, but I'm afraid that he may deny it or get very angry at me. I can easily find other work, but I don't want to burn bridges, and would like to stay with the company if possible.

What would be the best way to talk to my manager?

  • Have you been talking to his superiors without including him? You say management asks you back which implies it's not him making the decision. Managing someone who is officially a subordinate but bypasses you and works with your superiors can be miserable for a manager. But if those superiors are on your side, he must tolerate you. – JimmyJames Aug 16 '17 at 15:23
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    "For example, when I left last summer, he ignored my email thanking him and asking him for feedback" -- That's fairly normal, and not an indication he's upset with you. What did you want him to write back..."good job!"? – SnakeDoc Aug 16 '17 at 18:53
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    @SnakeDoc - He could have replied with something like "No problem, it was great to work with you also." We had never acknowledged that I was leaving, I hadn't said goodbye to him. I had left an open question in the email, and he never answered it. It came off to me as "good riddance". – therxv Aug 16 '17 at 19:15
  • @therxv I think you're reading too far into it. You could have walked right up to him and shook his hand, and thanked him for the opportunities and experiences in person, which would have prompted a personal response right then. Emailing after you're leaving/left was probably interpreted as a "thank you" of sorts as well, but you don't generally write back to "thank you" notices when you receive them in the mail/email. Also, asking for feedback in email requires a lot of writing on his part, and perhaps he was just too busy, or didn't have constructive feedback since he felt you did a good job – SnakeDoc Aug 16 '17 at 19:29
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It is not inconceivable that I said something that offended him; my company often has passionate discussion during breaks where people vociferously defend their opinions.

You're non-specific as to what topics are being discussed but I'd advise you to avoid discussing things like politics and religion at work. If the discussion is more about sports or which software the company should be using then you're fine as long as you're not throwing around actual insults.

However, I would have expected him to say something to me if that was the case.

You shouldn't expect that. Many people, if you offend them, will simply avoid you as much as possible. They don't want to have an argument about it, especially if they know they can't change your mind.

It's like having a bad meal or experience at a restaurant. Most people don't actually complain, they just don't go back.

I'm afraid that he may deny it or get very angry at me.

It's possible your manager may deny it but you can't force or trick him into being truthful. But I don't think you have to worry about him becoming angry if he's been otherwise reasonable.

If you don't want to be point blank, you can ease into it by first asking if he'd want you back next summer.

Boss, management is asking if I'd like to continue with the company and I wanted to check in with you on my performance. Do you want me to stay on the team? Is there anything about my work or my performance in general that you'd like to see me change or improve?

If he explains what's wrong, great, if not you can press the issue once:

I wanted to be sure because lately I get the impression that you're upset with me. Did I do something to upset you or am I reading this wrong?

At this point he may ask why you think he thinks he's angry, so be prepared to explain why. But if he denies again instead of explaining then just drop it. Don't turn it into an argument where you're trying to prove that his behavior changed.

You may have to decide whether staying with the company is worth having a manager that's cold toward you. But if you decide to leave to pursue other opportunities, you won't be burning a bridge.

  • Good answer. Recalls to mind "On Religion & Politics, or What Not to Discuss at a Dinner Party." Sadly, people have become virtually incapable of discussing strongly held opinions in a respectful manner. – Wildcard Aug 15 '17 at 19:26
  • Thank you. How can I mention things he's doing without sounding petty? – therxv Aug 15 '17 at 19:27
  • @Wildcard I feel like telling people not to talk about those issues with people they disagree with will only make that problem worse. It's something that takes practice. But not wanting to risk your job over it is certainly reasonable. – jpmc26 Aug 16 '17 at 0:06
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    @therxv Try to focus on the change in his behavior, particularly the changes that seem specific to you. So don't just say, "You joke with others but not me" but "You used to joke with me but I noticed you've stopped. Since you do still joke with others I'm wondering if I've done something wrong." – BSMP Aug 16 '17 at 2:06
  • @jpmc26 agreed on both counts. I wonder if you read the article, as the content somewhat belies the title. – Wildcard Aug 16 '17 at 4:50
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Since waiting for him to volunteer the information obviously isn't working, try the direct approach. I've done this when there seemed to be some disconnect with my manager and it's generally worked well for me (tech, US).

Have a private meeting with him and ask directly but politely. Start from the assumption that you've done something wrong, not that he has misunderstood you, and that you want to correct the problem -- something like:

I might be completely misunderstanding, but I have the impression that you're unhappy with me and I can't figure out what happened. If I've done something wrong I'd like to know so I can (a) fix it and (b) not do that again. As an intern I've learned a lot and I also know there's a lot more to learn. Is there something I should be doing differently?

Notice that I specifically mentioned your internship. That's because internships aren't just for cheap labor; they're for learning the ropes in your industry. So by asking it this way you're not just saying "hey what's wrong?" but asking how you can improve.

It's possible you've done something to upset him but he doesn't want to bring it up (especially if, as an intern, you'll be gone soon anyway as far as he knows). It's also possible that you're misreading him. The only way to know is to ask.

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    "you want to correct the problem" feels like the most important thing to me. Even if he isn't angry at you or anything, if you feel and show that you want a better relation with him, things should go smoothly. – everyone Aug 16 '17 at 9:21
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I suspect that if your manager didn't like you, the company would not keep offering you a position (and especially would not be giving you raises).

That being said, if this is affecting your work experience it's fine to say something like "I noticed that yesterday you were joking with Jane but then when I walked into the room you stopped, which made me concerned. I want to feel like I'm part of the team, so could you please give me some candid feedback about if I've done something to offend you?"

(This is using the nonviolent communication format for requests.)

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I was in a similar position in a previous employment where the owner of the company was fairly cold to me. He'd laugh and joke with others, but when he'd speak to me it was all matter of factly and stern. I wouldn't say he didn't like me, but we were completely different people. I didn't warm to him, he didn't warm to me, but we had a professional relationship and it worked.

Personally I don't feel like you have to be friends with every person you work with. Sure it helps, but at the same time you can't force someone to be friendly towards you. It can be disconcerting, but if your manager speaks to you professionally (as in not as a friend) then I wouldn't worry especially if the company want you to stay on. If he was being mean, threatening, bullying you then you would obviously have a problem.

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