Serving Two Masters: Dividing Your Attention Without Diluting Your Efforts

“I have eight different bosses right now… So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it.” — Peter Gibbons in the Mike Judge film Office Space, as portrayed by Ron Livingston.

“The President has only 190 million bosses. The Vice President has 190 million and one.” — Hubert H. Humphrey, 38th Vice President of the Unites States.

Serving Two Masters by Laura Stack #productivityWhile very few of us have suffered the fate of Office Space‘s Peter Gibbons (with his eight oblivious supervisors), working for multiple bosses within the same company has become a fairly commonplace situation nowadays as matrixed organizations consolidate, shrink, and reorganize. Often these situations last just a few weeks or months; however, sometimes they become permanent. Administrative professionals and project managers are especially prone to the practice.

If you face this situation, consider it just another challenge of the modern economy, designed to keep you on your toes. Take a few precautionary steps, and you can survive it handily. Your biggest challenge will arise from dividing your attention between your multiple “masters,” so that everyone winds up happy, including you. So let’s look at a few tips to help you hit a home run when management throws you this curveball.

1. Determine your ultimate boss. Rarely will your bosses be equal in status or priority. Base this on your job description and, if necessary, ask HR to weigh in.

2. Define your duties. Sit down with all your bosses at once and hammer out your responsibilities to each, making sure they understand and agree on your commitments. Bring up any potential conflicts and how you’ll handle them based on what you already know about the situation. Establish a strategy to deal with anything new that pops up and how they will resolve disagreements, so you stay out of the middle.

3. Manage your managers. Most of us have learned how to manage up as well as down during the course of our careers: i.e., we typically work to make life easier for the boss by keeping track of and anticipating their needs, asking them what they want us to focus on, and generally striving to keep them happy. Some call this manipulative; I call it part of the job. With two or more bosses, you’ll have to be more proactive than ever. You may even have to find ways to deflect some low-priority tasks in the process of juggling their work, especially if those tasks come from people you don’t report to—this may not be the time to be “nice.”

4. Share your schedule. Prioritize every task each boss assigns you as soon as you get it, so you can determine how much of your time belongs to each manager. Don’t let one give you more than their fair share of work, just because they think they can. Draw up your schedule in advance on a weekly basis, outlining how you plan to handle your responsibilities, and send it to all your bosses. If they disagree, or one demands the lion’s share of your attention over the others, use the duty-division strategy from Tip #2 to work out the differences. If necessary, meet with them and point out frankly that you’re only one person who can do only so much. Some bosses will appreciate your candor—some won’t—but don’t let them ignore reality.

5. Communicate everything clearly. Keep your bosses apprised on the status of their individual projects; they needn’t know anything about the projects belonging to your other boss(es). This involves first identifying their communication styles, just as you would with any boss. Ask if you don’t already know. Boss A might want to talk to you daily; Boss B might prefer weekly meetings; Boss C might prefer a bi-weekly email. Be especially clear about deliverables and deadlines from the beginning, getting agreement on both. If you can’t get firm answers for your inquiries, set your own deadlines and notify your boss of your intentions—if the person disagrees, it will finally evoke a response.

6. Document your days. Even if your organization doesn’t use timesheets, keep track of your time anyway, so you can answer questions and demonstrate your productivity at a moment’s notice.

7. Beside, not between. While your bosses may share your output, think of yourself as working beside them. While it may feel like they’re metaphorically tugging you in multiple directions, never actually let yourself get between them—especially if they clash about something more significant than your top priority. It’s not your job to mediate; nor should you take one side against the other(s).

Above and Beyond

I think you can effectively support several people. Be careful to maintain a balance in your own life while trying to keep everyone happy. You may have to spend some of your productive time doing more juggling than you like; but if you can’t change that, then accept it and move forward, proving to everyone how exquisitely productive you can be.