Reporting to Multiple Bosses

By Eva Rykrsmith on June 22, 2012 2 Comments

My organization seems to make a habit of not following the chain of command. Even in our small division of 10 people, I routinely find myself in situations where the division head gives orders directly to me (bypassing my manager, who is his direct report), or makes decisions that he doesn’t actively support afterwards (e.g., makes a decision and puts me in charge of implementing it, but doesn’t become actively involved when his own direct reports – who outrank me and who are affected by his decision – are dissatisfied with it and start challenging it). As a result, I find myself fighting to support decisions that our big boss made (sometimes without even telling his own direct reports about it), that my boss doesn’t have any knowledge of (except through me, as I usually do my best to keep him in the loop), and that our big boss’s direct reports are completely unhappy with. However, because the big boss didn’t make it clear to anyone that this is his stance on the matter, I lack the credibility to enforce and implement his decisions.

When I go to my boss about it, I get told that a) our big boss is too busy and too overwhelmed with work to be dealing with this and b) that this is all very political anyway. And I don’t want to go over my boss’s head to complain to the big boss about these issues when my boss told me to suck it up.

Question: Am I thinking too rigidly when I expect a clear chain of command to be followed? E.g., Big Boss has a Big Idea, Big Boss talks to My Boss, My Boss talks to me, I execute and deliver within my authority, and where enforcement or selling is needed, delegate upwards to My Boss. Alternatively, Big Boss has a Big Idea, Big Boss talks to me, Big Boss backs me up with his own direct reports (who outrank me completely). I should note that I am under 30 and that this is my first real work experience in a big organization.

First, kudos. You seem to have a very good understanding of the dynamics of a complex situation. I have been in similar circumstances so I understand your frustration in this scenario. I think you have also taken a good first step by discussing concerns with your immediate boss.

However, I question where your expectations for the chain of command come from. If your boss serves as an intermediary for communication between you and Big Boss, there would certainly be some details lost in the translation and besides, doesn’t your boss have other things to do than play telephone? It also seems overly bureaucratic for a group of ten people within a division.

Let me offer a new perspective: Big Boss coming directly to you is an opportunity. The underlying message is that he trusts you in getting a project done and is willing to take a risk to allow you to practice a leadership role. If you succeed, you stand a better chance of getting more projects with greater scope of responsibility and eventually obtaining a promotion and directly reporting to him in the future. Is this something that is in line with your career goals?

If so, the burden of responsibility now shifts to you. What can you do to impress the Big Boss and show you are capable? Identify problems (I think you got this part down) and work to create solutions (your next step is here).  There is a big difference between complaining and expecting others to fix problems for you and identifying a problem, generating possible solutions, and working past difficulties to get things done. Good luck!

This was my answer to the March reader question on the Intuit QuickBase Blog. To see the other three experts’ answers, please view the original post at 360 Answers: Caught Between Multiple Bosses.

2 Responses to “Reporting to Multiple Bosses”

  1. Greek says on: 22 February 2013 at 9:51 pm

    How would you advise a VP who has a EVP from another division (a peer to the VP’s supervisor) bypassing the VP and going directly to a Manager who reports to the VP. By going directly to the Manager (bypassing the VP) I’m referring to assigning work tasks to the Manager, meeting directly with the Manager, and inviting the Manager to his weekly meetings. All…without involving the VP and the EVP’s peer EVP who the VP reports to. And, when the VP approached the EVP and respectfully requested that the EVP work through him if he has tasks he would like the manager perform, the EVP basically responded with “hey, I’m an EVP and that’s just how I operate…why are you making this more than it is…?”

  2. Eva Rykrsmith says on: 24 February 2013 at 12:18 pm

    Good question–that’s a tough one!

    My thoughts are that the VP is actually the person with the least influence in this situation.

    The VP has already tried to resolve this on his own with no cooperation so it is time to consult his manager, the EVP, about how to move forward. Two EVPs are in a better position to work out what is best for overall company productivity.

    The VP can also talk to the Manager. This conversation depends on the specifics. Are these welcome work tasks that contribute to career development of the Manager? Is the Manager looking to make a move to the other division? Is the Manager getting urgent and important work done in a timely manner and up to standards? If not, there is some level of time management, accountability, and assertiveness that the Manager needs to exhibit. Usually it is understood that work that pertains to your core job takes priority, but discussing openly may be necessary.

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