Multiple reporting relationships and associated problems & solutions

Remember the days when life at work used to be simple, you knew exactly what you were supposed to do, and where the buck stopped as far as your work and career was concerned. If your answer is yes, then you probably were among the vast majority of corporate workers who had to report to one boss, and were answerable to nobody else except may be the top guy who sometimes happened to be the owner of the company. Well, as most of us are realizing, life at work is not that simple any more.

Today, if you are reporting to just one boss, you are part of a rapidly dwindling breed in the corporate world. And if you aren’t, you know how tough it is to juggle multiple bosses and their demands, because you’re part of many cross-functional teams, all at once.

When you have multiple reporting relationships with different people, who are at different levels and places, each one of them wants their work completed first, and you find yourself at wits’ end, trying to please everyone.
Here are three typical situations and some time honored and fundamentally sound recipes for dealing with them:

Problem: Your bosses may not know how stretched you are. And due to the enormous work pressure, they are also likely to be unaware of the work you’re being dumped with by other managers.

Solution: Speak up. It may sound clichéd, but communication is the biggest casualty in such situations. Clarify with each boss the work you are expected to do. Explain what the other bosses want and how you can divide your time optimally between all of them. Mark emails on critical projects to all, so that everyone is in the loop on what your workload is at any given point in time.

Problem: Deciding what, and who, comes first. Pleasing many masters is a tricky business. Despite your best intentions, you often find yourself facing the music from one boss for delays while another lauds your efforts at a job well done and delivered on time.

Solution: Ask questions. Often, handling multiple bosses gets compounded with lack of clarity on your part. If you’re unsure of the scope of an assignment, take time to discuss details and assess the time required to complete a particular task. That will help you arrive at a more realistic deadline and deliver better results without scrambling from assignment to assignment.

Problem: You get mixed signals from each boss on what the overall strategic direction is, so prioritizing your work becomes difficult. For instance, one boss could define the broad goals and priorities differently from what the other manager tells you. And when it’s your immediate boss versus a more senior manager, it spells big trouble.

Solution: This is an explosive territory and you could be its biggest casualty. So, act quickly and play it smart. Ask for a common meeting with all the concerned managers, and insist that they clarify the organizational objectives and agree on a clear set of responsibilities expected from you. It may be a bit difficult, but it is your only chance if you wish to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. If you find the going tough, remember that the organizations, by their very nature, are designed to create interpersonal issues. And it’s a critical part of your job to deal with these issues, regardless of the level.

There’s also a positive side to working for multiple bosses – A faster learning curve with exposure to multiple areas and geographies, better organizing and management skills, and finally, a better chance of your hard work getting recognized and appreciated.

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