The careerist: Working for two bosses

‘You need to master art of handling conflict’

The difficulties of working for more than one person have been recognised since Biblical times (Matthew 6:24, “No man can serve two masters”). The trouble is, with project-based work and matrix structures, having several bosses is becoming ever more prevalent.

What difficulties am I likely to encounter?
“You might have conflicting priorities – two people saying their tasks are urgent – and you may even encounter jealousy,” says executive coach Miranda Kennett.

John Gibbs, people partner for corporate finance at PwC, the professional services firm, says problems arise when you overcommit. “Often this happens when several projects go into a final phrase together,” he says.

What can I do to prevent problems?
The keys things to strive for are organisation and clarity. “Set out what you’re trying to achieve,” says Jane Clarke of business psychologists Nicholson McBride. “Get it signed off and agreed and then have it reviewed often. You might want to have a regular three-way call. This can be very helpful as it allows you to prioritise.”

If the two bosses cannot agree on priorities, she adds, “ask what the business requires. Refer to common purposes”.

Ms Kennett says you need honesty about urgency: “You should establish what the real timetables are.”

She says that it is human nature to try to please everyone and over-reach but that you need to avoid that temptation. “Make sure you have a job description. When you are coping well, people tend to pile things on you but you need to watch this. Often tasks are delegated just because your manager doesn’t like doing them.”

Above all, Mr Gibbs advises: “Have these conversations early. Problems will be sorted and your reputation enhanced.”

What general workplace skills can help me?
“Build strong relationships,” says Mr Gibbs. “These and a good history of delivering will give you some wiggle room if there are problems. It’s also important to flex your working style to suit
the two different managers.”

Ms Clarke adds: “You need to master the arts of handling conflict, saying no and having difficult conversations.”

What if things get on top of me?
“It’s better to be honest and come clean rather than struggle and eventually let everyone down,” says Mr Gibbs.

If the problem is the two bosses being unable to agree your priorities, Ms Kennet says: “Try and get them in a room together to talk. You may even need a third person to facilitate.”

Are there any upsides?
“You’ll get known more widely and the flexibility you gain working for people with different styles is a good thing,” says Mr Gibbs.

Ms Clarke adds: “At least you haven’t got all your eggs in one basket: if you only have one boss and they get canned, you could be in trouble.”

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