Q: I work in a complicated matrixed company, and have three bosses to keep happy. They don't always see eye to eye, so I end up in the hot seat trying to balance their needs. What's the best way to manage this?
Aaron, 41, project manager
A: Understand what success means to each, while practicing extreme transparency.
One of your major challenges is that all of your bosses will have different goals and motivations. Some of this will be related to their formal role; for example, you would expect different goals from sales, strategy, IT or operations heads. These may be fairly easy to discern, and are also something you can reasonably ask about in a neutral way.
While understanding formal goals may be sufficient, it's also likely that there are differences based, say, on temperament or personal career goals. In this case, one manager may be focused on stability or avoiding conflict, while another wants to get credit for a career-making breakthrough.
Obviously these are not goals you can bluntly inquire about. Yet they can be the true drivers of behavior.
In this case, your best path is to analyze the world from their point of view, bringing in all of your experiences with them to develop working hypotheses about their individual definition of success for the work you're doing with them.
Since communication misses are the most common source of your tensions, stay well-connected with each of them. It's reasonable to expect regular one on one meetings so you can be sure you are current with their needs and expectations.
Then develop a strategy that keeps them all in the loop. For example, if Sue from sales provides direction that conflicts with what Oliver from operations wants, lay out the issue in an e-mail to both so that they can hash it out.
This is a situation where the cc: line is your friend. The more they are compelled to be aware of these conflicts the better, as they can't then claim ignorance.
Also get input from them all on whose vote takes precedence. It's not fair to put you in the middle with no ability to prioritize, so get their guidance in advance. Try making a list of topics that may come up, and then have them determine which of them has the final word.
Given the interpersonal complexity, it may be helpful to have a neutral party help sort this out. If the steps above don't work or are too challenging to take on, seek out a mediator (perhaps someone from HR) to moderate the conversation.
Take steps to protect yourself so that you don't take the fall for decisions that are made, or that slip between the cracks of three owners. Document discussions and save e-mails so that you can refresh memories.
At the same time, use a "carrot" approach to build loyalty to you. Finding ways to help each of them feel successful will help build an environment where they feel they can count on you. It's a delicate dance, but can result in good outcomes for all if managed effectively.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, leadership coach and owner of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at email@example.com.