Companies are increasingly asking employees to play several roles by working for multiple bosses; 44 percent of U.S. employees do so, according to Gallup.
What does working for multiple bosses mean for employees and managers? Not all of the outcomes are favorable.
“Having a worker answer to multiple bosses can be a messy experience,” said Ben Walker, CEO of Transcription Outsourcing, a professional transcription services firm based in Denver. “That’s especially the case if the bosses aren’t on the same page project-management-wise. For example, one manager will give an order that’s different from the other manager, and that could easily confuse the employee who’s trying to accommodate two bosses simultaneously.”
While having an employee who answers to two bosses may be inevitable, especially during a pandemic when layoffs and furloughs are common, that doesn’t mean everyone likes this arrangement.
“At our firm, staff members are asked to juggle two or more responsibilities at the same time,” said Willie Greer, founder of The Product Analyst, a home-theater analysis company in Memphis, Tenn. “In our case, it’s been a difficult experience for both the manager and the staffer, as it’s a lot to handle. Right from the get-go, having a staffer who answers to two bosses can make a manager feel less important, while on the other end, it can confuse the staffer on who to follow and when to act for a particular boss.”
Managers who have had staffers work for two supervisors at once say the experience can be a grind. “As a manager, I have had employees who had dual reporting to me and another manager,” said Terry B. McDougall, founder of Terry B. McDougall Coaching in Chicago. “Basically, it meant that I had to spend more time ensuring that the employee knew what was expected so that the staffer’s time could be used for maximum efficiency.”
Excessive paperwork added to the headaches. “Since I was the lead manager of the employee, I took responsibility for performance review time, when I had to gather the feedback from my partner,” he said. “That definitely took more time because I had to spend more time coordinating with the other manager, as well as making sure that the employee was feeling confident and clear on project tasks.”
In some cases, though, two managers’ sharing a team or an employee may make sense.
Walker pointed to a media company where reporters routinely answer to multiple editors. “Media platforms can work with this setup,” Walker said. “On any given assignment, a staff writer may be working with several editors who have the authority of critiquing their work.”
Marketing and communications is another area where answering to multiple bosses may be effective. “I worked in marketing and had dual reporting to the chief of marketing [CMO] and the head of my company line of business,” McDougall said. “Eventually, I found this did make sense because each leader had a different perspective that needed to be taken into account [for me] to be effective in my role.
“For instance, the CMO provided guidance on branding, allocated budget, provided access to shared resources and more,” he added. “The head of our business development was the person that I worked with on developing a marketing strategy that supported the achievement of his business objectives.
“The direct-reporting relationship helped me to have closer and more-productive relationships with the sales organization, which provided me fast and relevant feedback on what was going on in the marketplace.”
5 Tips on Maximizing the Dual-Boss Experience
Managers who share a company team or staffer on projects need to work together to ensure the process goes smoothly. Here are tips from management experts:
1. Establish ground rules. Managers who share an employee must mutually develop ground rules for their expectations and how they’ll manage the employee.
“It’s not fair to expect the employee to be the go-between and constantly try to meet the expectations of two managers, especially when there might be contradictions in direction or competing priorities,” McDougall said. “When there isn’t clarity on ground rules, the employee’s role can be more stressful than it needs to be and may cause the employee to be less productive. Even worse, it could cause that employee’s tenure at the company to be shorter. That wouldn’t be the case if the managers were more proactive about creating a collaborative environment that supports the employee’s success.”
2. Take a multi-team—not multi-manager—approach. Rather than have two or more bosses share a support person, have a workplace team share the support person.
“For example, have the finance director and her team share a staffer instead of having the finance director and the human resources director share an admin,” said Elizabeth Brady, president of Supply Chain Strategists Inc., a supply chain consultancy based in San Diego. “By focusing on a team versus a level of management, it is clear who ultimately takes priority. Also, by working with a singular function, the goals and deadlines are less likely to conflict.”
3. Don’t pull staffers back and forth between projects. Managers who pull a team member away from a project to spend an hour or so on a separate project are doing a disservice to the team member and the project.
“I see this all the time when managers share an employee,” said Carla Diaz, co-founder of BroadbandSearch, a telecom information provider in Detroit. “Taking a staffer away from another manager for short stints can become a big problem if some tasks take longer than expected. In doing so, the manager is throwing an employee’s day out of balance and is damaging productivity.”
That isn’t fair to the employee, and it rarely ends well.
“Making an employee work for your project takes them out of the mindset for the other project,” Diaz said. “Doing so means they’ll basically have to start all over again to get into the flow of things for the day.”
Diaz advised managers to hold off on the short-term stints and plan a schedule with the other manager that allocates specific days to each project. “If you desperately need an employee to do something for you on the other boss’s time, speak to that boss in advance and trade a day out rather than taking away from their time and damaging employee productivity,” she added. “This will be fairer for the employee, and it’s better for business.”
4. Use a calendar. For managing time and scheduling, have managers and workers plan their week through a shared written or digital calendar.
“Have a notebook or digital space where you can jot down notes every single time, so you can plot your schedule,” said Greer at The Product Analyst. “That way, it will be easier on your end, since you know what to do and when to accomplish anything.”
5. Have patience. Greer said that in his experience, co-managers have overly aggressive expectations when managing a single team or staffer. That’s because managers are used to getting the results they want, but that might not be realistic when multiple bosses are involved.
“The biggest mistake I see is when co-managers think because an employee has accepted the challenge, they can split themselves into half and do two work-related tasks at the same time,” he said. “Understand the fact that accomplishing a single task is much more difficult if you have two tasks on your plate. Consequently, co-managers need to show leniency and be compassionate to employees who are struggling, because surely they are trying their best to please you and give their best to the company.”