01/16/2013 12:59 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2013

Managing Multiple Bosses

It is increasingly common in modern organizations that people have more than one boss. Sometimes this is just an informal arrangement with people working ad hoc teams, sometimes we have a dotted line 'virtual' boss and sometimes we have two solid-line bosses in a formal matrix structure.

If you have two bosses, then you know that getting them aligned and communicating can be a problem. If you have two bosses giving you work, then there will always be competition for your time and attention. If this becomes too bad, for example, where the goals actively conflict and you can't achieve both, then this isn't something you can solve it yourself and you need to escalate these to your bosses.

However, competition in goals, where you need to prioritize, is completely normal -- unless you have unlimited time and resources.

As an individual there are two ways that we can deal with this -- one is to be what I call the 'matrix victim.' The matrix victim waits for someone else to make their goals clear and to resolve any resource competition or lack of prioritisation. The matrix victim is often disappointed.

If you have more than one boss, the probability is that you are the only individual who has a full understanding of your role and priorities. Each of your two bosses may only have half the picture and will certainly have a lower level of motivation to solve it than you do.

So rather than being a 'matrix victim', we recommend becoming a 'matrix manager.' You might think that having two bosses would mean more leadership and support, but often it means less. When we have multiple bosses we need to take more ownership for our own goals and roles, and the good news is that this can lead to much more satisfying jobs.

If your goals are not clear, why not propose your own? It's an opportunity to shape your goals and your role toward your own interests and should be based on a better understanding of your own job than anyone else has.

In many jobs a lot of the work is defined in advance. Finance people still have to send out invoices chose payment, manage budgets and close the books. In thinking about your goals for next year it's a fairly safe bet that you will be asked to do a little more at a lower cost!

Why not create 'islands of clarity': define the things that you can and then learn to be more comfortable with ambiguity in the areas that are unclear. Professional and managerial jobs in particular will never be 100 percent clear. That's not the fault of multiple bosses: It's more a result of increasing pace of change and business complexity.

If you publish your ideas to your managers they can always disagree, but if they're busy (and who isn't these days) they will probably go along with your ideas. You can then focus your efforts on getting them aligned about the few areas that are not quickly agreed. Here, it's best to get both of them in a room to settle the issues rather than to speak to them individually.

So my tip: Don't wait for someone else to make your goals and role clear. Take this as an opportunity to carve out your own ideas and shape your role in areas that interest you. You are the only person who really understands the entirety of your role.

If you have multiple bosses you should certainly be the person with the most motivation to get this sorted and remember, if you take charge, it's usually easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.