In the movie, Office Space – a comedy about work life in a typical 1990’s software company – the protagonist, Peter Gibbons, has eight different bosses. All of them, seemingly unaware of each other, make requests of his energy and time as they pass his desk. While the movie is most certainly a satire, for some, it is not far from the truth. In this early part of the 21st Century, increasingly more employees report to more than one boss. Learning to manage multiple bosses is an essential skill in today’s complex organisations. Adam Grant and Robert Sutton (The Hidden Advantages of Quiet Bosses), in not wanting to let any of the bosses down, suggest that you first need to know what you are up against and then you can take several steps to mitigate the risks and make your job, and theirs, easier. They note the following challenges:
- Overload – simply too much to do, thus diminishing effectiveness. Many bosses treat an employee as “a possession” without taking into consideration the needs of other managers or your other responsibilities. This results in you being over-stretched and over-stressed.
- Conflicting messages – bosses that push their own agendas may do so at the expense of other managers or departments, but possibly also create confusion for you. Different (unaligned) expectations are potentially impossible to meet.
- Loyalty – some bosses want you to believe that they are your first priority. If you report to two or more of these managers, you may get caught with having to negotiate your way between competing demands for your loyalty.
So, if you do have multiple bosses, how do you mitigate the risks and make your workload easier to manage? The following suggestions might assist in managing many managers:
- Understand who holds the ultimate power – this is the person who is going to measure you, look after your career, make comments on your reviews and make decisions regarding compensation, increases and promotions. It is important to discuss expectations and measurement criteria with this manager.
- Facilitate communication sessions with all managers present – refrain from representing one manager to another, but rather talk about the balance of work and establishing priorities in a forum with all involved. Grant and Sutton suggest: “Enlist them in problem-solving and push for transparency”.
- Establish boundaries – Harvard Business School professor, Leslie Perlow, shows the value of setting limits. She found that engineers that had three days a week with no interruptions before noon so that they could focus on their work were far more productive than engineers that were constantly interrupted. Establish protected and uninterrupted times during your week.
- Take a proactive approach to your workload – communicate frequently with all the bosses regarding your workload through a shared document of tasks/expectations and timelines. Negotiate a harmonious workflow that meets everyone’s needs. Understand that “top priority” means different things to different managers.
- Depersonalise most issues that arise – many managers are not out to “get” employees, but rather to prove their prowess with other managers. As such, make sure you don’t get caught in the middle. Don’t take these spats personally.
Managing multiple managers requires unique skills, tact and transparency – these should originate from a foundation characterised by self-confidence, character and competence. If you report to multiple managers, assertively manage the relationship dynamics to prevent becoming a professional casualty.