How to Deal

Caught in the cross-fire between two bosses?

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LIly Garcia
Special to the Washington Post
Thursday, July 15, 2010; 12:25 PM

I'm running out of ideas for how to deal with a situation between my two bosses. I report to each of them equally and I find myself triangulated into squabbles that they have with each other. I get caught in the cross-fire of what amounts to a turf war between their respective departments. They are both accomplished professionals and leaders in their respective specialties, but when it comes to acting professional towards each other -- well, that's a struggle for them. I've done my best to grin and bear it and just go about my work as best I can. The thought of initiating a meeting with the two of them seems like overkill and potentially detrimental to me and my position, but I'm getting so tired of their cranky comments to and about each other. Any ideas of how I could handle it short of a meeting between us all?

It is grossly unprofessional of your bosses to use you as an outlet for their frustrations about each other. And you have a right to feel exhausted by their negativity. However, it would be inadvisable for you to attempt the role of peacemaker. The conflict between your bosses is theirs to resolve, either on their own terms or with the guidance and encouragement of a more senior manager. If you try to mediate between them, however subtly, you will be overstepping your bounds and inviting them both to turn their hostility onto you.

Yet you have the obligation and the right to address the impact of your bosses' squabbling on your ability to do your best work. It is one thing to tolerate a few harmless "cranky comments" from each about the other. It is quite another to dodge the cross-fire of an all-out turf war.

In the face of mere negative comments, you should keep doing your best to maintain a cheerful outlook. Do not engage either boss in a dialogue about the other, but also do not attempt to diffuse the comments with positive ones. This will only make you seem argumentative, call your allegiance into question, and add fuel to their disagreement. When one of your bosses begins to rant about the shortcomings of the other, listen politely and attentively, smile, and quickly change the subject.

Anyone who has parented a toddler can tell you that distraction will diffuse a volatile situation more effectively than anything else. As accomplished professionals in their respective areas of expertise, your bosses might enjoy the opportunity to demonstrate the depth of their knowledge. So feel free to ask them challenging technical questions that will draw their energy and attention elsewhere while actually addressing issues that are relevant to your job.

If you face the more serious challenge of reporting to two supervisors who give you contradictory instructions, make you the go-between for their disagreements, or otherwise use you to hurt each other, then you must address the problem more directly. In this case, I would advise you to call a meeting, but not to discuss how your bosses can get along or even how it feels to be manipulated by them. Instead, focus on discussing how you can structure your dual reporting relationship so that your bosses agree on your objectives and how they are to be accomplished. You might suggest, for example, the development of a master project list to which they must both agree before you begin an assignment. Think about other practical project management tools that will make it easier for you to keep your bosses focused on getting the work done rather than on how much they dislike each other.

You do run a risk any time you make a bold move like this one. But if you don't assert some control over the professional dynamic among the three of you, you might soon become just another professional casualty.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


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