When Your Staffer Has Two Bosses

Sharing a staffer with another manager can be tough. Here are tips that can help.

By Brian O'Connell March 3, 2021
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When Your Staffer Has Two Bosses

​Companies are increasingly asking employees to play several roles by working for multiple bosses. In fact, 44 percent of U.S. employees work for at least two managers, according to findings from a Gallup survey. However, the arrangement can produce some uncomfortable situations for managers and staffers alike.

“Having a worker answer to multiple bosses can be a messy experience,” says Ben Walker, CEO of Transcription Outsourcing LLC, a professional transcription services company 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.”

With an increased number of layoffs occurring during the pandemic, more employees may be asked to take on additional duties—and sometimes report to two bosses. But that doesn’t mean everyone likes this arrangement.

“In our case, it’s been a difficult experience for both the manager and the staffer, as it’s a lot to handle,” says Willie Greer, founder of The Product Analyst, a home-theater analysis company in Memphis, Tenn. “Right from the get-go, having a staffer who answers to two bosses can make a manager feel less important.” 

Double the Headaches

Managers say that, in addition to creating uncomfortable situations, the experience can be a grind.

“Basically, it meant 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,” says Terry B. McDougall, founder of Terry B. McDougall Coaching in Chicago. 

Excessive paperwork added to the headaches. As the lead manager of the employee, McDougall had to collect feedback from the other manager at performance review time.

“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,” she says.

In some cases, though, it can make sense to have two managers sharing a team or an employee. For example, it works at media companies where reporters routinely answer to multiple editors, Walker says.

Marketing and communications are two other areas where answering to multiple bosses may be effective.

When she worked in marketing, McDougall reported to the chief marketing officer as well as the head of business development.

“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,” she says.

The chief marketing officer provided her with guidance on branding, allocated the budget and gave access to shared resources, while the head of business development helped her create a marketing strategy that supported 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,” McDougall says.

Making It Work

Managers who share a staffer or company team need to work together to ensure that the arrangement yields positive results. Here are five tips from management experts:

1. Establish ground rules. Managers who share an employee must work together to outline their expectations and set guidelines for 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 says. “When there isn’t clarity on ground rules, the employee’s role can be more stressful than it needs to be and [that] 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,” says Elizabeth Brady, president of Supply Chain Strategists Inc., a 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,” says 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 says. “Doing so means they’ll basically have to start all over again to get into the flow of things for the day.”

She advises managers to hold off on the short-term stints and plan a schedule with the co-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 adds. “This will be fairer for the employee, and it’s better for business.”

4. Use a calendar. For managing time and scheduling, supervisors and workers should plan out each week on 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,” Greer says. “That way, it will be easier on your end, since you know what to do and when to accomplish anything.”

5. Have patience. Greer has found that co-managers often have overly aggressive expectations when managing a shared team or staffer because they are used to getting the results they want. But they need to be realistic.

“The biggest mistake I see is when co-managers think because an employee has accepted the challenge, they can split themselves in half and do two work-related tasks at the same time,” he says. “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 toward employees who are struggling, because surely they’re trying their best to please you and give their best to the company.”  

Brian O’Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa.

Illustration by Marc Rosenthal for HR Magazine.

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