Your Boss Wants To Meet With You? Here’s What You Do

 


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our boss has asked you to meet with them, and you don’t know what to expect. Maybe they asked something vague like “can I talk to you for a minute?”, or sent you a calendar invite with a subject like “quick chat” or “update”. Perhaps they’ve let you know that it’s about an assignment you’ve submitted, but it’s still vague and you’re worried. Or maybe you’ve called in sick one too many times or done something inappropriate and you’re sure you are in trouble. These meetings are a normal part of office-life and are a critical role for the manager, so don’t be alarmed — you’re not in this alone.

If you enter this meeting with the right mindset and preparation, you’ll come out better than you were when you went in.

In my experience as a manager, I’ve held countless meetings like this with my staff (I’ve also been on the other side more than once). In this article, I’m going to draw from my experience to help you get through this meeting in good shape.


The Concept of ‘Skill Versus Will’

Most managers take a ‘skill versus will’ approach when managing an employee’s performance or behavior. It’s generally understood that skills can be taught if an employee has the will to learn and a strong desire to do well in their role. As a manager, I would go to the ends of the earth for a struggling employee who’s trying their best, open to ideas, and puts those ideas into practice. However, if an employee appears not to have the will to excel in their job, no amount of skill can make up for that.

If you’re an employee who has lost your will at work, it’s time to do some soul-searching and consider your situation. Are you in the right job? Are external factors affecting you at work and if so, how can you separate the two? Is there something in your control that you can do to change your mindset? These are questions you’ll need to consider at some point.

Your goal in this meeting should be to leave your boss with the understanding that, whatever went wrong leading up to this meeting, it was a skill issue and not a will issue. This concept is at the core of the recommendations in this article.

Let’s get started.


Step 1: Be Empathetic With Yourself

So your boss just asked you to meet with them, and now you’re worried about what’s going to happen. You may be thinking “are they going to reprimand me?”, “Are they going to pull me off a project?” or “are they going to cut my shifts or even fire me?”

It’s scary having this meeting hanging over you, and the vaguer the invitation is, the worse (remember this if/when you’re a manager yourself!). That’s normal, don’t feel ashamed.

It’s important to recognize these feelings and self-empathize. The concept of self-empathy involves “compassionately connecting with what is going on inside us. This may involve, without blame, noticing the thoughts and judgments we are having, noticing our feelings, and most critically, connecting to the needs that are affecting us.” (Marshall Rosenberg, Non-Violent Communication)


Step 2: Be Empathetic With Your Boss

The most important part of your boss’s job is coaching and feedback. Scheduling meetings to discuss your behavior or the quality of your work is their responsibility. Try to put yourself in their shoes, and think of the ways that you would handle the situation. That will help you to empathize with them.

Empathy towards another person involves a “connection with what’s alive in the other person and what would make life wonderful for them… It’s not an understanding of the head where we just mentally understand what another person says… Empathic connection is an understanding of the heart in which we see the beauty in the other person, the divine energy in the other person, the life that’s alive in them… It doesn’t mean we have to feel the same feelings as the other person.” (Marshall Rosenberg, Non-Violent Communication)

Your boss is here trying to pay the bills just like you, and this is probably awkward for them as well. I recognize that your boss will make it difficult to empathize with them sometimes. They may communicate vaguely, aggressively, or even passive-aggressively. I don’t condone that and I think every manager needs to prioritize developing their communications skills. However, this article is about helping you manage this conversation, so we’ll focus on what you can control. You can’t control how someone else speaks to you, but you can control how you interpret the message and react.

So practice your own effective communication skills, and If someone behaves like a jerk, let them, it can’t affect you any more than you let it.


Step 3: Get in the Right Mindset

For both yourself and your manager, the objective of this meeting is for you to leave with clear expectations for your future work or behavior. To succeed in this, you need to prepare in two ways:

  • First, Get in the right mindset.
  • Second, anticipate and gather the information you’ll need in the meeting.

If you only have time to do one or the other, choose mindset. You can survive this meeting with a great attitude and a lack of information, but no amount of information will help if you’re closed-minded or defensive.

Here’s how you can get yourself into the right mindset:

Be Confident

Remind yourself that you are a competent employee and the right person for this job. There was a time when you interviewed for this job against several other people. The hiring managers weighed their options, did background checks, and decided that you were the right person for this job. That’s still true today, so carry your head high.

Clear Your Mind

Your biggest enemy ahead of this meeting is fear and anger. Before the meeting, take some time alone to clear your mind of noise and expel the anxiety. I like to walk around outside, look at some plants, meditate, or write a page in my journal. If I’m hungry, I have a snack (you don’t want to be ‘hangry’ in there). Avoid scrolling through your phone or talking to others if possible. From my experience, these distractions postpone anxiety rather than dispel it.

Think of How You Can Gain From This

Once you’re feeling calm and peaceful, think of how you can grow from this meeting. What can you take away from this meeting that will make you a better employee? How can you flip this meeting from disciplinary to developmental? Make this meeting a launchpad so that one day you can say “that meeting gave me what I needed to succeed in this role.”

I like it when my staff comes into the meeting ready to have a conversation, collaborate, share their ideas, and work through a problem. What I don’t like is when an employee comes in expecting me to tell them what to do so they can get out as quickly and painlessly as possible. That behavior reminds me of when I was a child and my mother was mad at me: “if I just stay quiet and agree with everything she says, she’ll finish nagging quicker so I can get back to my Playstation.” When an employee does this, I have little confidence that anything will change, and I fully expect that I’ll be having this conversation with them again.

Tip: When I meet with my own boss, I like to consider their strengths and find ways to glean from them. If you solicit advice and your boss gives it to you, this is a seriously high-risk/high-reward opportunity and you better follow through! For instance, if an employee asks me for a book recommendation, and I give them one, and then they read it and tell me what they thought, I am beyond impressed at their commitment. However, if they ask for a recommendation and then don’t follow through, I get the impression that they aren’t really interested in getting better, and I’ll consider that when they ask for developmental opportunities in the future. So, if you aren’t willing to follow through on advice, you are better off not asking for it!


Step 4: Gather Information

Since we are specifically talking about a vague meeting invitation, this isn’t always easy. However, there are still things I like to do to prepare.

First, consider any previous expectations that your boss has set with you regarding meetings of this nature. In the past, have they told you what they want you to bring to these meetings? For instance, I’ve had bosses who asked that I bring a printout of my latest sales numbers or project work-plan to any meeting. If your boss typically expects something like this, bring it proactively, even if they haven’t asked.

Second, go back to the notes you took at your previous meeting with your boss, and prepare to speak to any outstanding issues. If you haven’t been taking notes at your meetings, start now and follow this step next time.

Third, make a list of all the projects or assignments that you’ve got on the go, and jot down a few key points so that you can give an update on demand. The point form is great, and include timelines for the completion of milestones. This will help put your manager’s mind at ease, and if your manager is concerned about your timelines and priorities, this will give them an opportunity to offer their advice. If they give you the ‘ok’, then you are set!

I would bring any printout’s folded up in my notebook though — I’d feel a bit silly sitting there with my sales numbers out if the conversation turned out to be about a behavioral issue.


Step 5: In the Meeting

As you sit down, remind yourself of your objective. While your armpits are sweating and you’re dreading the next words from your manager’s mouth (“do you know why I’ve asked you here today?” is a classic), remember that you’re here to grow. Keep your eyes and ears on the prize. Here’s what you should do:

Take Handwritten Notes in a Notebook

Be sure to write the date and the topic of discussion so you can reference back to this meeting in the future. I keep a separate notebook for a 1–1 meeting because it makes it easy to recall previous discussions without having to dig through old notes.

Mind Your Body Language

Walk-in with energy, standing up straight, clear-faced, and awake. You are not reporting to the Principal’s office, and you are not being scolded by your parents, so don’t act like you are ‘in trouble’. This is a professional working environment where everyone is being paid to be here.

After you sit down, assume good posture. Sit up straight with your feet flat on the ground. Along with the obvious signal to your boss that you care, there are actual scientific reasons why good posture will help you perform better.

While I recommend that you go in with energy, don’t try and make light of the situation with too much camaraderie. This meeting may be about something serious, and you don’t want to appear naive.

Even if you are one write-up away from being fired, your body language will tell your boss whether you are prepared to do what’s necessary to turn things around, or whether you’ve given up already and are just awaiting your fate.

Ask Clarifying Questions

You don’t want to come out of this meeting with unanswered questions and uncertainty. You want to know exactly what’s expected of you in terms of behavior, quality, and/or timelines.

However, your boss expresses themself, focuses on listening for the underlying observations, feelings, needs, and requests. It helps to paraphrase what your boss has said, using your empathetic observations to highlight their feelings and needs. For example, you might say something like this:

“To recap what we’ve discussed: You’re concerned about my ability to manage time. I have missed my deadlines three times this month. This impacts my coworkers because they cannot proceed without my work, which puts the whole team behind schedule. Your expectation of me going forward is that I meet my project deadlines. I’ve committed to completing my project tasks on time. I’ll do this by scheduling deadlines in my calendar, using an Eisenhower grid to prioritize tasks, and if I’m at risk of falling behind, I’ll let you know right away. If I fail to follow through, my job could be may be at risk. Is there anything I’ve missed?”

It can be painful and feel a bit awkward, but you’ll come out knowing what you need to do going forward.


Step 5: Follow Up

Email your boss to recap your meeting. I love getting a post-meeting follow-up email from an employee that basically repeats what was said in the paraphrasing step above. If the meeting was informal, you could just say something like this:

“Thank you for the meeting today. I understand that I am expected to complete x assignment by y date and that you’d like me to pay particular attention to z. I will prepare you for an update by (date). Is there anything I’ve missed?”

A message like that makes me confident that the employee understood what we discussed, and that I don’t need to monitor them — they’ve got this! It’s a simple step that makes it easy for everyone.

After you’ve hit ‘send’ on your follow-up email, congratulate yourself, you made it through the meeting!


Final Thoughts

I hope the tips in this article help. What I’ve described can be a pretty scary scenario. Fortunately, in workplaces where coaching, feedback, and one-on-one’s happen frequently, you won’t run into this kind of meeting very often (or ever).

However, workplaces are full of humans, and most of us need to work on our communication skills. So, it’s in your best interest to train yourself to do well in these types of impromptu meetings with your boss.

I want to acknowledge that workplace bullying does exist, and an accusation of bullying is a very serious matter. However, most of these instances can be resolved through improved communication. Give the steps in this article a try, and if the problems persist, ask your HR department for further guidance.