Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Starting a new job, Building a new foundation – part 8 and reporting to more than just one supervisor

Posted in job search and career development by Timothy Platt on June 20, 2010

This is my eighth posting in this series on successfully working your way through a new job probationary period and building a foundation for ongoing success at that job (see postings 73 through 79) and my focus here is going to be on one of the most problematical minefields that a new employee, or an employee with tenure on the job can face – uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity in the line of command and in who you have to report to for what. There is a well known maxim that no one can serve two masters, but all too often that is in effect what is required of us in the workplace and sometimes we are not even just reporting to two.

Sometimes this is set up as a largely formal reporting structure, and a business is overtly organized as using a matrix management or similar approach, and for at least specific functional areas. Sometimes employees are told they will primarily report to one specific supervisor but that they will be dotted line supervised by one or more others as well, as an informal and ad hoc way to address ownership and political issues in management and decision making. Some businesses use what I think of as a diffused management approach where your supervisor is simply your colleague – until they are not. As I write this I find myself thinking back to a situation I faced on the job once where the department head and his immediate peers all took a fairly rigid, hierarchical approach to management and everyone had one supervisor, and anyone who even just appeared to be trying to go around their supervisor was asking for trouble. This CIO/department head had a military organizational approach to hierarchy and he definitely believed in maintaining order by maintaining and following a clear line of command. And then I spotted a potential problem developing and I wrote a white paper on it and the next thing I knew I was not-so-dotted line reporting directly to him as well as to my expected supervisor – who also reported directly to him but officially and on the table of organization. This was a bit awkward. This experience has also helped shape the approach I take to supervision and to establishing and maintaining lines of responsibility.

Know precisely who you are supposed to report to and for what. This may seem to be an obvious point and it should be but unless you take the initiative and work to keep this in focus, you will run into problems as goals and priorities change and as areas that the people you report to about shift in response, and in their individual minds if no where else.

Communicate, and that means making sure your primary supervisor and any others you report in some way too, all know what you are doing and for whom and with what time and other resource allocations.

Encourage the people you report to in one way or other to talk with each other about priorities in how your time and effort will be allocated, as this brings up a set of issues where you will need help and you do not want to be seen as making unilateral decisions.

Supervision complexity is not always stable and it can come and go according to specific and changing circumstance. Work with your primary supervisor to stay up to date on who you are still and currently reporting to and for what.

Your primary supervisor is whoever writes your performance evaluations, and if more than one person contributes to writing your evaluations your primary supervisor is the person responsible for putting together the final draft.

There are potential opportunities for misunderstandings and for disconnects as to goals and priorities in any business and between any employee and their supervisor(s). The issues that I write of here simply move that from being a lower probability concern to being a matter of active, ongoing importance if you report to more than one supervisor. The warning sign to look out for if you do find yourself answering to two (or more) masters is in dissatisfaction and even resentment that you are not working effectively enough to meet their goals and priorities. A response I have found to help is candor, and asking for help. Enlist the people you have to report to, into the effort to keep this running smoothly by telling them you need their advice and their help to keep effectively focused and on target for managing and meeting your responsibilities to them. And get these people talking with each other and directly, and not just through you. And remember you can always seek out a mentor for advice on something like this.

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