Maintaining Your Management Relationship When an Employee Answers to Multiple ‘Bosses’

by Bruce Tulgan3 Min Read

In the restaurant industry, sometimes it’s hard for some of your employees to say exactly who is their “actual boss.” Employees may not always be working with the same shift manager every time they come to work, or they may have developed a close relationship with a manager who is not their “actual” boss and thus blurred the chain of command. In these situations, it’s complicated for the employee and for you.

Be the manager who sets up employees for success.

When you give such an employee a direction or regular task, it’s not always clear how many other instructions from other “bosses” that employee is juggling, or whether direction from another boss will interfere with what you have asked of a direct report. For his part, your direct report in this scenario is in a bit of a pickle. He needs to juggle the priorities of multiple competing bosses and either be worn to a frazzle or decide which one of you he is going to disappoint, if not both.

You want to be the manager who provides guidance, direction, and support in helping your direct reports navigate their way through these complex authority relationships. Help your direct reports anticipate and plan for dealing with “other bosses” who might get in the way of your reporting relationship. In your regular one-on-ones, talk through the particular “other boss” scenarios that are getting in their way at any given point. Some examples may be:

What if other “bosses” – official or otherwise – approach your direct reports with competing agendas?

Teach your direct reports to:

  1. Stop and check: “Am I the right person for this recurring task or assignment? Is there someone that seems more appropriate to delegate to? After all, my primary assignments are X and my primary manager is Y.”
  2. Determine the parameters of the task or assignment: How long is this going to take? What are the requirements?
  3. Figure out whether this assignment will get in the way of other primary duties. But don’t make excuses. Tech employees to simply explain the conflict and then work with the other manager on a solution.
What if other bosses hold your direct reports to higher or lower standards than you, or impose conflicting rules?
  1. Always make sure your direct reports are 100 percent clear about the standards you expect from them when they are reporting to you. The more “other bosses” your direct reports have, the more opportunities there are for conflict and confusion. So it becomes important to remind those direct reports regularly of your standards and rules. Let them know, “Whenever you are working on for me, we follow these standards and these rules. Here are the standards. Here are the rules. Are we clear?” Whenever possible, provide a set of standard operating procedures, step-by-step instructions, or a checklist.
  2. Remind your direct reports that when they are working for other managers, they need to get 100 percent clear on the standards that the other manager expects when they are reporting to her. Tell your direct reports, “When you are working for me, please do it my way. When you are working for that other manager, do it her way.” Unless, of course, another manager is asking your direct reports to do something that is outright wrong or bad. Teach them in such a case to come to a high-level decision maker immediately for their help.

I knew a longtime executive who had this approach to competing with other bosses for his direct reports’ time and effort:

  • Be the manager who is always going to follow up and insist on accountability.
  • Be the manager who sets up employees for success and tracks their performance and follows through with credit and rewards accordingly when they deliver.
  • Be the manager who pays close attention to what other expectations your employee is juggling for other managers. Ask lots of questions about her work with other managers. Ask how these expectations might interfere with the work you are assigning. Decide together how your direct report should work around these conflicts.
  • Be the manager who holds everybody to a high standard, regardless of what other managers require. Remind your employees regularly and enthusiastically that you are different.

Bruce Tulgan

@BruceTulganlangen | LinkedIn | Website | Email

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders, best-selling author and keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company.

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