Now is the time to talk to your manager

Have you spent the year putting off that tough conversation? Now is the time to have it, and here’s how.
graphic image of a man holding a briefcase and scratching his head on a road which is blocked by a brick wall

Is there something that has been niggling at you during this past year on the job?  

Performance reviews offer a moment to broach those conversations with your manager, but as an employee, we don’t often tend to say, ‘Hey, I want a performance review’.

But niggling questions should not stop you from asking, ‘Can I make a time to talk to you?’ Inevitably, the bounce back answer will be, ‘What about?’ Be assertive and explain that you would rather not do this on the fly, but would like the clarity of a quiet space for ‘a catch-up before the year ends’.

It is usual for people to procrastinate when it comes to the tough workplace conversations. But, if you have a concern, you don’t want to carry it into your end of year break.

Remember that coming to the table takes time. And getting answers, even longer. So don’t wait until the last weeks of December. Plus, it isn’t realistic to expect your manager to deliver upon a request as the team is mopping up the calendar year – which is all the more reason to jump on “the niggle” now.

How to have the tough conversation

Perhaps it’s that pay rise, thanks to the cost of living going up this year? It may be that promotion that has been on the horizon, but is still hanging out there? Or perhaps it is just a rethinking of the home/work balance, and being honest with your manager about what you need, and want.

Don’t harangue your manager at the end of a group meeting, or tap on their door with: ‘I’ve got a quick question for you?’ Make a time. Close the door. And put your concerns in front of your manager and consider the following:

  • Identify what is dragging you down.
  • If you could change one thing in your job, would it help to push for that change?
  • What is it you hope will be the ultimate outcome from sitting down with your manager?
  • What are you willing to compromise on?
  • And how important is timing?

Have these tough conversations with yourself first, before walking into your manager’s office. It is the first step to empowering yourself in the workplace.

In an earlier ArtsHub story, Dr Diana Carroll wrote, ‘It may be tempting to keep quiet and keep the peace, but that inevitably leads to frustration and resentment.’ She turned to the advice of Harrison Scott, Marketing and Community Manager at Artisan Recruitment, who said: ‘Ensure you choose the right environment and understand your own value. Then make sure you listen as much as you talk.’

Read: Yes, you can say that: a guide to tricky workplace conversations

You need to know that I’m feeling burnout

Do I feel like a road-roller has just passed over me? Do you boot up your computer every day with a calendar countdown to the end of year break?

According to ArtsHub correspondent Madeleine Dore: ‘Working at a frenetic pace is a disease of the contemporary workplace. Boasting about it is positively perverse.’ The conversation is familiar to us all – you ask someone how they are doing and the response is “busy”… It seems anything less than exhaustion is a failure to be hidden from the social gaze,’ she wrote.

Read: Busy is not a badge of honour

So how do you broach “stop” with your manager? Conversations around burnout and workplace well-being are, thankfully, more accepted today – an outcome of the pandemic. So have them, says Kate Larson, in her article ‘Post-COVID or post-burnout: less is necessary’. Many companies have access to subsidised programs to assist their staff with mental health and stress in the workplace. You have the right to access this support – you just have to be honest with your manager, and ask.

One of the biggest factors around burnout is identifying it in the first place. Ask yourself:

  • Is the amount of work I am doing outside of my work hours reasonable?
  • Do you constantly feel overwhelmed by the volume of work to be done?
  • What would help alleviate the workload, and is this a realistic option to bring to your manager?

Facing the hellish reality – more money

When you type: ‘How to ask…’ into the Google search bar, the first item that comes up is ‘How to ask for a pay rise,’ closely followed by ‘How to ask a girl out’ and ‘How to ask a boy out,’ wrote Emma Clark Gratton on ArtsHub.

Read: How to ask for a pay rise

Money is scarce in the arts, and so those in the sector often feel guilty asking for more – especially when they can see that the money could better their organisation’s offering. After all, the most common reason for working in the arts is “because I love my job” – the familiar fallback. This, however, is not a reason to accept less, year-on-year.

  • Be realistic. Know what you want.
  • Put your value to the organisation in bullet points, to sell “your raise”.
  • And, if your request is denied, know what your next step will be. Leave or stay.
  • Consider a compromise? Same pay, fewer hours is an option, or perhaps a promise of a pay rise in the next financial year. Or some training?

I’m finding this environment toxic

An office is a little like bacteria on a petri dish under a microscope – not everything gels in harmony or grows in positive ways. In fact, some workplace relationships can break down and become toxic.

‘On an organisational level, sustainability is not only about funding, resources and audiences. On a personal level, it is about self-care​, career structures and paying the rent. But there is a middle ​region that is essential to many arts projects, the sustainability of working relationships and friendships that power collaborative art-making. People make the day-to-day processes come together and, when relationships crumble, the project flounders too,’ wrote Madeleine Dore.

If relationships have gone off track in the workplace, you need to bring that to your manager. The key is not to approach this topic aggressively. Emotions will often be heightened when relationships break down. Quite likely, your manager is not aware of your concerns. The reality is they are probably up to the gills with their own issues and deliverables up the chain. But there are three things you need to communicate:

  • the exact reason you have called this meeting – pinpoint it clearly
  • why this is concerning you, and impacting your work, and
  • what you are looking for as a solution/outcome.

Read: Are “quiet firing” and “quiet quitting” real in the arts?

Help! I hate this job

‘When should you take the leap and switch things up? And, if you do, how long is it acceptable to stay in your new gig?’ asked ArtsHub writer Jo Pickup in her earlier story, ‘How long should you stay in a job?’. She wrote, ‘The truth is, there is no magic number, nor any strict rules.’

While some professionals advise that sticking in a job requires three years to make sense on your CV, today that has pulled back to 12 months. Even as the sector starts to settle in a post-pandemic era, a lot of fluidity remains in the workplace. Ask yourself:

  • What is it I hate about this job? List the reasons in order of priority. Is it tasks, expectations, overtime, burnout … get to the bottom of the niggle of dislike.
  • What would keep you there? What needs to change to meet your expectations for this role?
  • And is that realistic? Is there just an internal roadblock to this within the organisation (which may be addressed with your manager), or is it a straight mismatch?

This is often not about fault or finger pointing. You need to understand the pathway for change, before it can happen. But, mostly, you just need to be honest with yourself, and your manager, in a humane and respectful way.

Read: The 10 best performance review questions to ask your manager

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina