5 tips for dealing with a boss who holds you back

Find a way to route your own upward path.
5 tips for dealing with a boss who holds you back

If your boss is stunting your professional growth, whether it’s intentional or not, it can be extremely frustrating, but there are ways to take your career into your own hands.

“If you are relying on your boss to take the lead when it comes to your professional development and it’s not working for you, then you may want to rethink your approach,” said Lucy Sanderson-Gammon, career coach with Luminous Consulting Limited in Wellington, New Zealand. “In my experience, employers are more likely to support employees who are taking ownership and responsibility for their own career development than those who expect their boss to manage this for them.”

Here are tips from experts on what to do if you feel your boss is holding you back in your professional development:

Clearly communicate your career goals. If you can demonstrate that you have thought about where you want to take your career, how it aligns with the objectives of the organisation, and what you are willing to do to progress, your boss may be more inclined to help, according to Sanderson-Gammon.

She suggests making it as easy as possible for your boss to support you by creating a proposal that clearly outlines what your career objectives are, how they align with either your development plan or the organisation’s business plan, and how the development opportunities you are proposing will meet those objectives.

Be sure to provide all the information your boss needs to make a decision. Rather than submitting a vague request for funding, for example, Sanderson-Gammon recommends identifying exactly which course or development opportunity you would like to pursue, how much it will cost, how reputable it is, how much time it will require of you in work hours, what you expect to learn from it, and how it will benefit your career and the organisation.

Show your commitment. If you know that what you are asking for is likely to exceed the available budget, Sanderson-Gammon recommends showing how serious you are about your own development by positioning it as something you are prepared to pay for yourself, but noting that you would appreciate your boss’s contribution, for example, by way of airfares and/or paid time off work to attend.

Courses and training are obviously not the only ways in which people can progress their careers, Sanderson-Gammon said. You can also show your commitment by seeking out growth opportunities within the company, whether that’s trying out a more senior role for a period of time or pursuing stretch assignments in a different department or team.

Pursue external training. If you still think you’re not receiving the necessary support from your manager, another option is to seek out alternative ways to improve your professional development.

“External training courses can be an effective way of developing skills beyond their current job role,” said Matt Weston, managing director at Robert Half UK, in an email. “Equally, finding a mentor either inside or outside of the company can prove invaluable to their career, sharing tips, experiences, and introducing them to their networks.”

Network far and wide. The good news for people with an unsupportive boss is that other professional connections can fill that gap.

“What my work shows is one of the biggest distinguishers of more successful people is having a broad network,” said Rob Cross, consultant and professor of global business at Babson College in Massachusetts. “Usually, [successful people] do have an effective tie-up with a boss, but it’s broader than that.”

Cross has found that successful people tend to have a very clear idea of the things that bring them satisfaction in their work and strategically manage their time to maximise networking opportunities.

He also recommends ending every networking meeting by asking the other person who else you should be talking to. He explains that the first person you connect with is often able to put you in contact with someone with even more influence who can better help you with whatever your goals are.

“With that first contact, you’re kind of guessing,” he said. “But who they refer you to, a huge proportion of the time, are the influencers in the group.”

Move on. If you have been clear about your career objectives and ways in which your manager might support you, and your boss still hasn’t made any changes, you might want to reassess whether this is a company in which you want to continue to invest your time and efforts.

“When the organisational culture is such that developing staff is not seen as important, chances are there are other employee benefits you are missing out on by continuing to work there,” Sanderson-Gammon said. “Great employers know that if they want to attract and retain top talent, they need to look after their employees, and offering professional development is a key component.”

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at