Two bosses means twice the conflict

Dear Joan:
I work part time in an administrative assistant capacity. My main concern is a situation whereby I report to two bosses and frequently find myself "caught in the middle."

It has been so stressful at times that I have requested of both bosses that they both meet with me at the same time and we can discuss a given situation or assignment and mutually agree upon the course of action necessary. (I have been promised much in the area of responsibility, job, title, salary, etc. and each time I try to follow through on any of the above, one boss throws the ball toward boss No. 2.)

Working for more than one boss can make anyone schizophrenic, yet many administrative assistants must split their personalities to work for multiple bosses. Some say it works beautifully, others feel like jumping off of the nearest high-rise. Much depends on the parties involved and how much they are willing to work together as a cooperative team.

Your team has been throwing power and priorities from person to person like a hot potato. Out of total frustration, you have caught the spud and decided to hold on to it until someone decided what to do with it. I'm glad to see you assert yourself but I'd have to see you get burned.

There is no reason why you should be forced to call meetings in order to corner your bosses into a joint decision or approach. Clearly, you are doing your boss' jobs. They should be meeting and deciding what the priorities are and how to approach an assignment before they ask you to tackle it.

In a confidential part of your letter, you described boss # 1 is of higher rank than boss # 2. In fact, boss # 1 is boss # 2's boss. Normal business protocol dictates that the person of higher rank has more clout. Why then isn't the boss of higher rank making the decisions and directing boss # 2??

Is the bigger boss unassertive? Is his subordinate suicidal? It seems to me that the lower boss better pay closer attention to what his own boss wants rather than letting his administrative assistant figure it out for him. But what about you? I asked a number of administrative assistants with multiple bosses to respond to your letter and this is what they said:

"Try to set priorities as much as you can on your own. When the senior boss gives you a task or determines a course of action, consider that to be the right way to go. When the other person gives you conflicting directions, tell him or her that it doesn't fit what the bigger boss wants you to do."

"In my job, when the person of lower rank does something I don't think her boss would agree with, I tactfully point it out and suggest that she discuss it with him."

"I'm frequently in situations like that because my boss is so busy he doesn't take time to think through some of the details on assignments he delegates. I try to figure out what he might want and when he gets back, I ask him if I'm on the right track. If the other person is steering me in the wrong direction, he'll correct that person."

You mentioned that you are working part-time for these two executives. It appears that the company must be rather small. Small companies usually need someone with organizational skills who can coordinate administrative details. If you can make yourself valuable to the senior executive, you will be in a good position to get more responsibility - and the title and salary to go with it. Where your career advancement is concerned, hang your star on boss # 1. This is the boss who can make it happen for you.

Go to this senior executive and ask for advice on how you can help him or her work smarter. Explain that you will be deferring to him or her when you find yourself in these situations in the future. You may want to suggest that you meet weekly (or huddle daily) so that you can stay in close touch with what he wants. During these meetings, your boss will be forced to think through priorities. This will make you a key assistant who will help your boss think and plan. It forces him to be the decision maker rather than putting you in the middle. And it also puts you in close contact on a regular basis so that you can begin taking on more responsibility.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
About Joan Lloyd
Joan Lloyd & Associates provide
FREE subscription to receive Joan's article by email

Email Joan to submit your question for consideration for publication, request permission to reprint an article for distribution, or for information about carrying Joan Lloyd's weekly column in your publication, or on your Internet or Intranet site. Visit to search an archive of more than 1700 of Joan's articles.
© Joan Lloyd & Associates, Inc.