It’s a fact of modern work life that many of us have multiple supervisors. And even if you’re an efficient multi-tasker, you’re never going to be Superman. It’s not a good idea to sabotage your goals by taking on more work than you can do just because someone above you said so.
In general, you want to be perceived as a can-do employee by all of your supervisors. A good first step is to formalize your daily responsibilities with your official boss. Find out who on your team is authorized to delegate work to you, and note the type of assignments you can expect from each person.
Let’s say that Joe, who is outside this core group of delegators, gives you a stack of client status reports to do. How should you respond? It’s perfectly appropriate to politely reply that you would be glad to help, but that you would appreciate it if Joe would check with your official manager first. Joe may or may not pursue the matter, but, either way, you have extricated yourself from an awkward situation and have placed the ball squarely in your official boss’s court. In all likelihood, your boss will say no to Joe for you, especially if doing status reports is outside your area of responsibility.
Now imagine that Jane, a member of your core group of delegators, leaves an urgent assignment on your chair that must be done by the end of the week. Jane has known about the task for a few days, but now it’s Friday morning and the deadline is looming. As my mother used to say, don’t let another person’s lack of planning become your emergency. If your own “to do” list dictates you do something else, speak up.
Tell Jane that you wish you could do the task for her, but you are currently working on a project with Tom that requires your attention. Give her the option of resolving the issue with Tom or your official boss, and emphasize how much you enjoy working with her. Ideally, Jane will leave the interaction with the perception that you sincerely do want to help her, but that you can’t help being caught between conflicting responsibilities.
What if your official boss is the one with an urgent request that you don’t have the time to attend to? In a way, this is the least painful scenario, because all you really have to do is ask her to help you prioritize your various assignments. You can say something such as, “I’d be happy to take care of that, but today I’m researching statistics for Tom’s client presentation. Which do you think I should do first?”
If your official boss wants to snatch your time at Tom’s expense, that’s her prerogative. Again, though, you have made someone else accountable for deciding which of the competing tasks you should direct your energy toward. By always striving to present yourself as a hardworking and disciplined employee with the best interests of the organization at heart, you will be able to maintain good relationships will everyone above you without killing yourself in the process.