Most people struggle to please a single boss. In today's companies, with their multiple, dotted reporting lines and project-oriented work, it is common to answer to two or more people.
The obvious problems with two bosses are exactly what you'd expect. Each boss regards you as theirs — and, when it's crunch time, they think nothing of giving you a full job's worth of work. If they're both racing to complete projects at the same time, you can find yourself doing two very full-on jobs at once. Don't take this personally. This is the situation you are likely to face. So how do you keep both your bosses happy — without making yourself miserable?
Establish clear expectations
Start with your job description. You need to have a meeting with both bosses to discuss expectations: what you are expected to deliver, what their priorities are, and how you will resolve conflicting demands on your time. Get this down in writing. That way, six months down the line, if Boss A says, "I need you on Monday afternoon", you can refer to the agreement, which shows you are committed to Boss B on Mondays.
Encourage your bosses to communicate
If Boss A has a fairly slack period and Boss B is very busy, they may be fine with you working more for the other boss. Again, it's worth keeping a record here — as the boss who is currently getting less of you may expect some sort of quid pro quo later on.
If you think it's tough keeping track of your diary and projects normally, it's going to be a lot harder when you're working for two managers. Here it is a good idea to make use of collaborative online tools and have a calendar that all three of you can view and edit.
Learn to say 'no'
Competent, diligent people often end up doing more than their fair share of work because they automatically say "yes" and do a good job. But you do not want to become two people's go-to person for minor tasks that they do not wish to do. Remind yourself (and them) that you are doing half a job for each of them. Suggest that, if they need someone to delegate to, a full-time member of their team is likely to be better.
Remember managerial differences
What delights one may leave the other indifferent. As well as compartmentalising the tasks you perform, you will also need to compartmentalise your working style. Even if you vastly prefer one to the other, you need to treat them equally. And if they dislike each other and complain about each other to you, it is in your interests to be as tactful and neutral as possible.
Don't suffer in silence
If you are struggling with the workload, you could end up letting both bosses down. If they are making outsized demands on you, arrange a meeting where you can discuss how to proceed. Here, the onus on you is to tell them what you need and what you can deliver. So you might say, "I do not have enough time to finish both your projects next week. But if Boss A can lend me Meghan for three days and Boss B is OK with the following week, it should be possible." Here, you are asking them both to make a small sacrifice so you all get what you want.
Focus on the career value
Just in case you think there's no upside to any of this, there is. It will teach you flexibility and how to manage upwards. You'll learn an enormous amount about how to deal with conflict, manage expectations, negotiate, and have tough conversations. It will also improve your network: You are getting two senior people and all their connections and exposure for the price of one. Moreover, it spreads your risk. If one boss goes down in flames, you still have the other.
Be ready for a plea for loyalty
Possibly the worst problem you will have is one of your bosses demanding total loyalty or making loyalty to them an issue. Here, the best thing to do is explain that you have to be scrupulously fair and that, if they want 100% loyalty, they will have to become your only boss.
Rhymer Rigby is an FM magazine contributor and author of The Careerist: Over 100 Ways to Get Ahead at Work. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.