Learning to “serve two masters” and managing multiple supervisors is a vital skill in today’s work world. Organizations have increasingly embraced matrix structures, with “dashed line” reporting (you work under a supervisor who doesn’t do your performance reviews) and “solid line” reporting (the true boss who evaluates your performance.) Do your best to accommodate the latter, but don’t overlook the other(s.)
Further, with cross-functional teams, it’s common these days to have multiple team-based supervisors, each overseeing your work on different projects. If you’re not cautious, it’ll become all too easy for each supervisor to regard you as if you have no other commitments, and you can end up letting them both down.
The key to managing expectations at odds is insisting on boundaries. If you aren’t too careful, you could become totally overwhelmed—each boss isn’t mindful of what the other’s sending you. Each ends up pushing their own agendas regardless of what you already bear on your plate.
To resolve the two-boss dilemma and try to please everybody, take the initiative and get your bosses to cooperate and liaise regularly:
- Create and maintain one master priority list of everything on your plate. Update it at the beginning of every week, and make sure both bosses have a copy. This should help each understand how any emergent task would jibe with the other items on your list.
- When one boss drops an urgent task on your lap, refer to the master priority list and ask, “If you want me to do this, what is it you want me to take off the list because I also have three other deliverables due in the next few days.”
- Establish a daily 5- or 10-minute standing coordination meeting (“scrum”) with all the bosses. In the meeting, point out your current and impending priorities. They can adjust their relative preferences for you.
- Don’t be the “go-between” and agree to speak on behalf of one boss to the other—especially if they aren’t speaking to each other. There’s much ambiguity, and managing conflict can become a significant challenge for you.
Even if you have multiple supervisors whom you take direction from, you’re likely to have one boss who’s ultimately responsible for their career. This boss will judge your performance and decide about your compensation and promotions. Tell her about your double bind and see if she can work out an acceptable arrangement with her colleague.
Idea for Impact: Remember to maintain good relations with everybody you work with. Personnel changes are widespread and frequent in most companies, and you never know who’ll be your next boss. Don’t strain your relationships with the other.