Caught Between Two Bosses

Last Updated Aug 20, 2007 6:52 PM EDT

A recent survey of 6,000 employees who report to two bosses found that 62 percent of those who were rated highly by one boss in performance reviews weren't rated as highly by the other. Personnel Decisions International, the company that conducted the survey, believes this data shows that managers' bias comes through in performance reviews.

But that seems a bit too simplistic for such a complicated work relationship. The employee has to contend with two different sets of expectations, two different personalities, and two different understandings of "top priority." It's easy to get caught in the middle. Similarly, if the two managers aren't in close communication, the employee can slip through the cracks.

These tips can help make things easier:

  • Clarify expectations. It's crucial that the managers make sure the employee understands her bosses' expectations of her. If the managers aren't providing that information, she needs to seek it out.
  • Communicate early and often. Each manager needs to be aware of not only the employee's workload and deadlines, but also of any areas that need development. That way, two people can work in tandem to help the employee correct any performance issues that may arise. If the managers aren't talking, the employee often has to be the messenger.
  • Give the employee some leeway. An article from the Wall Street Journal talks about an employee who told his managers that he'd get the work done, but he wanted the freedom to decide how it would get done. He reassured his bosses and earned himself some autonomy.
Even in the best situations, some employees and managers simply aren't cut out for this kind of relationship. An employee might respond better to a particular manager's style and may, in fact, do better work for that manager. He may just not be adept at frequently switching gears. Managers might become competitive about the employee's time or have trouble communicating with each other. If these factors come into play, you'd probably get better results by having the employee report to one person.