More than one boss? Serving Multiple Masters

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Managing unreasonable expectations

“How should I deal with having more than just one boss, when all of them have unreasonable expectations? I serve multiple masters and they all act like their work is the only thing that I should be working on.”

This question comes up a lot in my Forward Program for professional development, so I thought I would answer it here on the blog.

Most of us at some point are working for more than one over-demanding stakeholder, so it’s important to have a strategy for when this happens.

When I have multiple bosses or stakeholders, here is how I manage it:

1. Share Context
2. Share the Problem
3. Share Expectations

1. Share the context

The first thing that you need to do is to make each of your bosses or stakeholders aware that theirs is not the only work on your plate.

I would do this by simply creating a one page communication document which has a column for each of your stakeholders. In each column you list the work that each of them is expecting you to do.

Whenever you meet with or communicate with your any one of your bosses/stakeholders, use this page so that they can see their work in the context of ALL the work that is on your plate.

Even if you don’t talk about it directly, this view of your whole workload will go a long way to making them realize that their work is not the only work you have.

2. Share the Problem

While you don’t want to say, “I have too much work to do and I can’t help you”, what you can say is:

“You can see that I have these 4 different areas of work from these 4 different executives.

I have done my best to prioritize among these things, but there is still a conflict because 3 of you are asking me to finish something that takes a week, in one week.

Do you have any ideas for how I might accomplish the best outcome given that these work streams are in direct conflict?”

At this point it will be much harder for any one of them to say, “Only my thing is important, forget about those other things”.

Although they may want to say that, you typically get an answer that is more like, “This one part is very urgent, and I think would only take a day or less. Is there any way you can do that right away for me, and then deliver the rest in the next 3 weeks?”

If you have this same converation with all 4 of your stakeholders in this manner, you are sharing the problem amongst the stakeholders instead of dealing with an impossible situation on your own.

If the situation is indeed impossible, and all 3 are saying, “You must do a full week of work for me right now”, this approach has let you lay the foundation to say, “I think it is important that the 3 of you talk about this so that we can agree on a path forward”.

If you don’t share the problem, you run the risk of being the sole owner for an impossible workload, which will not have a good outcome.

3. Share expectations

Once I’ve gone through the steps of sharing the context and sharing the problem, I create a high level communication document that shows the status of my work for all of the bosses/stakeholders. And then they all get the same high-level update.

It’s important to continue to share the full context when you set expectations because after you complete steps 1 and 2, there will be a amnesia that sets in. The tendency is for your stakeholders to forget that they are not the only one you work for.

By sharing ongoing communications that include the full context, you keep expectations set appropriately and you leave the door open to go back to step 2 when you need to.

What do you think?

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About Patty
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or facebook, or read her book RISE…3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, AND Liking Your Life.


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You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or Facebook, or read her books RISE and MOVE.

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