QMy boss has been making me look bad in front of his boss. He'll tell me to work on certain high-priority projects, and then when his boss asks him the status of a lower-priority project, asks me if I've done it yet. How can I handle this without rocking the boat too much?
AYou're being put in an awkward position, and the most effective way to deal with it starts with a calm conversation.
The inner game
You may have a lot of emotions associated with this: probably anger or frustration, but perhaps also confusion about what you should actually be working on. Acknowledge your feelings, and then focus on setting them aside so that they don't cloud your judgment or lead you to hotheaded behavior that you may regret.
Take an unemotional look at these incidents, considering whether there are other interpretations. It may feel as if he's throwing you under the bus to protect himself, but would others see it that way? Imagine how a bystander -- perhaps a colleague or client -- may view it. Both the words he uses and his tone will factor into this. "Remind me when you'll be working on this" sounds much different than "Is that done yet?"
Think about the situation from his perspective, as well. Even if he is behaving inappropriately, it'll be useful for you to try to understand the reasons.
He may be insecure about his own performance and trying to make himself look good, or he may be threatened by you and trying to undermine you. Or he may have forgotten the project status or simply be clueless about the effect of his words.
Finally, determine how you'd like these situations to be handled, and how much action you're willing to take to address it. For anything to change, you're going to have to put yourself forward, managing the potential risks and rewards of doing so.
The outer game
Start by setting up a meeting with your boss at a low-stress time. Prior to the meeting, plan what you'd like to say. Be clear and non-accusatory, describing the situation neutrally and using "I statements" to express your feeling.
For example, "Yesterday when Pat asked about Project X, you asked me if it was complete yet. I was confused since you'd told me it was lower priority than Project Y and felt like I was being put on the spot in front of Pat. I want to be sure that we're on the same page and I am meeting your expectations for what I should be doing."
Gently calling him on his behavior in this way may be enough to change his behavior.
If it continues to occur, you'll need to be more blunt, or even consider commenting in the moment: "Do you want me to switch gears and work on that?"
Because this would put him on the spot, recognize that there are risks. However, if it's a big enough problem, then you may want to be finding a different boss anyway.
The last word
Communication issues like these are best addressed directly, and can often be resolved to everyone's satisfaction.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, a credentialed coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.