Six things you should do when you have more than one boss

Back when I was a busy head of communications in a large, government organisation, I had more than one boss. Not only that but they were people who were at the top of the hierarchy. I had my line manager, the assistant chief executive; the chief executive; and the political leader of the organisation.

Did this drive me insane? Hell yeah!

At times I felt like I was being pulled in every which direction, desperately trying to keep on top of the ever-growing list of demands that came from each. My to-do list meant that I often had very little time to spend with my team and in particular, those who reported directly into me. And I had no energy when I went home, meaning I just wanted to sleep or veg out rather than spend quality time with friends and family. Exhausted and burnt out, I knew there had to be a better way of managing things. The one thing that wouldn’t change was the reporting structure. The one thing I could change was how I behaved.

If this problem sounds familiar then here are my six tips to help you manage multiple bosses:

1) Have a three- or four-way conversation

This is a crucial and yet often overlooked activity. When I ask senior executives, in a similar situation, if they have met with the two or three people, they report to, at the same time, more often than not the answer is “no”.

Getting everyone in the room to agree what the key priorities are, as well as if there is a hierarchy of priorities, is vital if you’re to succeed. This also includes setting out where priorities and expectations might clash, and how to sort out any disagreements or misunderstandings.

This shouldn’t be a one-off meeting. It’s a good idea to have a session at least twice a year but even better to have one a quarter. This means things can be flagged up and dealt with earlier on.

2) Make sure each boss knows your workload

Planning ahead is crucial if you’re in a role where you have more than one boss. This means looking ahead for the month and being clear on your workload. Once you’ve plotted this in to your calendar, you’ll have a clearer idea on where you have space and where you don’t. Key is to communicate this to your multiple bosses.

One thing I found also helped me was spending an hour on a Friday afternoon planning the week ahead. This meant I put time in for actions, such as writing an important report, as well as took meetings out that were non-essential. I’d also include buffer time, which I’ve talked about in previous posts, meaning that if something urgent and last-minute did pop up, then I’d have some time to handle that.

3) Get clarity on who your ultimate boss is

There will be those times where requests just aren’t feasible and you need to push back. You need to know who has your back in that scenario. For example, in the event you’re asked to do something that is against policy or law, which of the bosses do you call on to support you on that? Being clear on this early on can make a huge difference.

The other thing to think about is who has overall decisions around your performance appraisal and any pay or career opportunity decisions relating to this? That person is your ultimate boss and the relationship you should spend more time on.

4) Set clear boundaries

Setting boundaries is vital to protect yourself from burnout, something I see in far too many of the managers I coach and train. Interestingly, one of the main issues I see is where boundaries have been set but then the manager then gives mixed messages. For example, saying that they are non-contactable on holidays but then checking and responding to emails when they’re on holiday. You’re not helping yourself if you do this. You’re setting a precedent.

To get clear on boundaries, think about what’s important to you in work and life. For example, if it’s important to you that you have time with your children in the evening, such as bathing them and reading them a bedtime story, then make clear that 6pm-8pm are off-limits.

One chief executive I worked with, who had multiple bosses, set out a one-page outline of what they would and wouldn’t do. For example, they attended church on a Sunday and therefore, made it clear that Sundays were a day they would not be available unless there was an absolute critical emergency. They were prepared to be available on Saturday mornings from 9am-12noon. This clarity meant this particular chief executive managed his stakeholder’s expectations from the off.

5) Be proactive

Don’t let things fester. If you’re struggling to meet everyone’s requirements because what’s been asked of you is too much, then you need to raise this early on. Don’t be a hero and try to bravely battle on. That is a pathway to burnout and in some instances, being signed off sick. This is where knowing who your ultimate boss can help. If you’ve been nurturing and maintaining that relationship well then this should be your first port of call. They can hopefully advise you and where needed, speak up for you, in the event you’re being stretched ridiculously thin.

6) Clarify expectations

Sometimes the stress and overload can be of our own making. One of the things I commonly find when working with stressed and busy managers is that (a) they’re taking on stuff that really isn’t their priority and (b) they’re over-delivering on what was actually expected. In our rush to be seen as diligent and someone who delivers, we can set off at a hare’s pace to get things done. It can actually save us time and unnecessary stress if we double-checked what exactly was needed and in particular, what ‘good enough’ looks like. Here is a helpful checklist to help you quickly clarify expectations.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

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