CMI’s guide to approaching your manager with a problem

Thursday 29 August 2019
It’s okay if you’re struggling with something at work – we’ve all been there – but when is it time to ask for help?
Scrunched up paper near a bin

Approaching your manager with a problem can feel uncomfortable – but the good news is that it can be a little bit easier with some preparation. The first thing to bear in mind is that your manager is there to assist you with your workplace problems and help you succeed – why else would they have hired you?

Using CMI’s 21st Century Leaders report, we look at what employers value most from their staff to plot out how to go about starting that difficult conversation.


Sometimes we find that the answers weren’t that difficult to find – we were just looking in the wrong places. It may be as simple as searching online forums for an answer to a software problem you’re having or asking your friends how they manage their time and finding a technique that works for you.

Sixty percent of employers identified taking responsibility as one of the most desirable behaviours when surveyed for our 21st Century Leaders report. Looking for solutions before approaching your manager demonstrates that you can be accountable for your workload. It’s worth noting, though, that nobody wants you to agonise over this to the point you’re creating more stress for yourself. Your workload will affect other people, so if you have exhausted your options and have earnestly looked to solve the problem yourself, it’s definitely time to ask for help.


Plan a private meeting to discuss the issue at hand, giving both yourself and your manager some time to think about talking points ahead of time. You can approach you manager in different ways: a casual coffee-room chat, an official meeting, or via email. Sixty-four percent of surveyed employers think that communication skills of graduates are somewhat or very strong, so don’t underestimate your skills when it comes to using them in stressful situations.

If the problem isn’t urgent, just message your manager with “Can we grab 30 minutes to discuss X?” and organise a meeting in the next few days. Communicate in a format that suits the urgency of the problem. If, for example, a deadline is looming and you know you’re going to miss it, then sending an email will only delay things further. Instead, call them to arrange a quick desk meeting, or go up to them directly. This will probably be the best method to get the desired results.


During your meeting, start with the issue at hand, and then go back to the beginning. It will be helpful for your manager to know each step that has led you to this point. Fifty-five percent of employers reported to CMI that being honest and ethical is one of the sought-after behaviour in employees – so, though sometimes it’s hard to be honest, it is the best route to take when talking through the problem with your manager.

If you think the project that you’re working on will miss its scheduled launch date, start by saying so, and then go back to the start and list what’s happened to cause it. If an issue with a colleague, start with the current situation (I am being bullied by X, or X is causing toxicity in the team) followed by interactions you’ve had or witnessed. Your manager will need to see the entire story so that you both can find a workable solution.


When it’s time to approach your manager, write down the key points of the problem at hand. If your problem is to do with your workload, identify the lowest-priority tasks and ask if you can share these between the team. If a project has gone awry, try and pinpoint what it is that’s gone off-kilter. If you feel stressed over an upcoming deadline, ask for feedback on a project’s status and see if someone in the team can help you to the finish line. If the problem is with a colleague, such as through bullying or other toxic workplace relationships, write down dates of any instances you want to report, as well as names of any colleagues who will corroborate your experiences. Ask if there’s scope to be moved to a different desk, or another even team, and see if your manager or HR can speak to the colleague(s) you’re having struggles with.

You’re not expected to know the answer to every issue that arises at work – that’s why you’ve got a manager! Everyone will ask for help during their career – and no one expects you to soldier silently on when struggling with a problem.

Want to gain more tools to deal with difficult conversations? Visit ManagementDirect for loads of resources to help you, or register here for our expert webinar on how to handle difficult conversations.