Join Tatiana Kolovou for an in-depth discussion in this video Communicating with multiple bosses, part of Communication Tips Weekly.
- In the movie Office Space, Peter Gibbons plays the role of a disgruntled employee who reports to eight different bosses. But it's not fiction and it's not comedy for many of you. Robert Sutton, a professor at Standford writes that it is extremely common these days to have more than one boss. It's a natural consequence of more flattened organizations. Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of Business reminds us that the tendency to support multiple bosses is not limited to large, complex businesses.
Start-ups and family owned businesses have overlapping roles and really blurry authority lines, leaving you with many bosses even in small businesses. The challenges of reporting to more than one person come as no surprise to you. You live the overload, the conflicting messages, the tension over who's work you'll do first, the totally different expectations each person has of you. The bottom line is, if we're not careful, we can end up letting everyone down.
But don't let me paint too bleak of a picture here. There are some perks to working for multiple people. You generally have more autonomy than someone who just has one boss. You get more variety in the work that you do. And honestly, you have a better chance at getting what you want. Just like a kid who knows to go to Mom to ask for certain things, but you go to Dad for other things, you too have some choice when asking which might increase the odds of getting what you need.
So, let's look at a few communication strategies to make the most of working for many. First of all, it is imperative that you work efficiently. Arrive at the office each morning and make a prioritized plan, and then work your plan. Figuring out priorities is tough when all of your bosses insist that their project is the most important job on your desk. When this happens, put it back on the managers to figure out what gets done first.
You have three people fighting for your time. Show all three of them the workload generated by each, the deadline each has requested, and say, "I'm eager to do a great job," "but I can't do the impossible". "The three of you will need to figure out," "whose project gets my attention first." "Here are a couple of suggestions." "Let me know!" That one line, "here are a couple of suggestions" is really important.
It shows that you are being proactive. You're trying to be a problem solver. And while it's ultimately up to those with the conflicting demands to resolve the issue, you have given it your best shot. By the way, it's also a good idea to know who your ultimate boss is. Who does your performance reviews? Who makes decisions about your compensation? Figure out who has that kind of authority, and let's be honest, that's not a terrible way to identify your top priority.
Now, take your prioritized list, with all of the project deadlines, and share it with each of your bosses. Keeping everyone in the loop of your projects is a great communication technique. You also want to keep that deadline list in front of you at all times. And if you notice that a deadline is sneaking up and your boss hasn't given you some of the information you need, nudge your boss a little bit. No sense being pushed into a time crisis when a little reminder might get the ball rolling.
My main advice when it comes to communicating with multiple bosses is to recognize that each of them has their own unique personality, and try to tailor your interactions accordingly. For example, Courtney an administrative assistant at a university supports over 30 people, yet she knows their birthdays and always drops a message to each. She knows who wants to work with the door open and who prefers it closed. She has noted travel preferences and selects flights, hotels, and travel times that fit each person the best.
She knows who to speak to very directly and when she needs to use a softer or more indirect approach. As you can imagine, the departmental staff think the world of her. The better you understand the personalities of your bosses, what makes each person tick, how they think, the easier it will be for you to communicate with them and the more appreciative they will feel toward you.
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- Persuading people
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- Making small talk
- Saying no
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