Between a rock and a hard place


I am a part-time supervisor in charge of equipment on my operation. We have several shifts daily. Periodically, equipment is left in a vehicle sent to another of my company's facilities. I was instructed by my division manager to report all losses directly to him, as was my counterpart on the following shift.

The issue I'm encountering is that the supervisor and the shift manager for the following shift have told my counterpart NOT to contact the division manager without their approval. I was also asked to do the same by them. My shift manager has tried to address the issue, but they show him no level of respect either.

If I turn a blind eye to the situation, I'm as culpable as they are. If I contact the division manager and advise him of the situation, I bypass chain of command and draw negative attention to myself. What approach would you suggest to resolve this situation with the least amount of backlash?

Ken, Florida

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Peter Vajda's Answer:

I can sense your discomfort – sitting between a rock and a hard place given the conflicting messages of your division manager and shift manager. You're in an awkward place – which should never happen, especially if you're working for skilled managers .

The biggest issue in having two bosses is when they don't communicate, share information, or work well together and you find yourself caught in the managers' crossfire. Unfortunately, you're in the middle of a managerial disagreement.

Initially, I have some questions – the answers to which might affect how you respond to your dilemma.

Who writes your performance reviews, your division manager or your shift manager? Do you have a job description that clarifies the reporting structure? Have you ever been asked by your shift manager not to contact your division manager on any other matters? Finally, are you caught in the middle of a political struggle between your division and shift managers?

I'm not clear when you state, "My shift manager has tried to address the issue, but they show him no level of respect either." Who is "they?"

So, given I don't have answers to these questions, but do have experience with the type of workplace situation you mention, here are my thoughts.

No, you don't need to turn a "blind eye" to the situation. However, I'm not so sure that contacting your division manager (and your shift manager at the same time - read below) about your dilemma is an inappropriate action. Whatever action you take, you may draw negative attention, or may not. Whether you contact one, or both, you may be preparing for an up-hill performance review. The chance for a successful, win-win-win (among the three of you) outcome might not be very high. But, the outcome depends on how your two managers deal with the conflict.

From your description, I don't think you have a choice; you need to involve both managers in resolving the issue. If it's only about power and politics, you're taking a risk and they both might view your action as a big mistake. Or not, depending on the relationship between the two "bosses." Your shift supervisor might wonder why you ratted him out. Your division manager might be curious why you can't work this out with your shift manager on your own. Or, they may take a more positive approach. I don't know their relationship.

Trying to "figure out" an appropriate response without input from both, or only from one, is self-destructive. You need to approach the conflict by asking them both for resolution, for clarity. My experience with similar situations says: when there are clearly conflicting messages (such as you have), your job is to push the problem back upstairs and get them to resolve it.

If it happens that the two managers try and force you to resolve their conflict, resist. That's a no-win situation. Instead, demand (politely and respectfully) the managers resolve their own conflict by scheduling meetings with them both together with you. Be respectful, diplomatic and stay out of the middle.

Don't attempt to resolve the conflict by yourself. Experience says doing so can result in a conflict between you and your two managers that could blemish your record, or worse.

By the way, I'm assuming that both your managers are aware of the other's message to you (some flavor of "report to me directly"). Are they? Are they both clear on what the other is saying?

In addition, some bosses want to know they're your first priority. If both feel this way, it's easy to get caught in the middle – is "loyalty" an issue?

The bottom-line consideration is: who is your ultimate boss - the one who is ultimately responsible for your career, the one who completes your reviews, and the one who contributes to them? This factor will/should support you in making a decision about how to go forward.

In the final analysis, my experience says the best approach is to get your managers to talk with each other, rather than trying to represent one's agenda to the other. Start by expecting the best. Invite them to discuss the conflicts and get it out on the table; be transparent.

Bring your managers together in the same place (a "neutral" room or an email chain) and explain what you see as the conflict – state the facts, no judgments. Ask them to contribute to the problem solving. If you ask your bosses for advice on how to resolve the conflict, they're more apt to see the perspective and challenges from your point of view.

Know that my advice assumes a healthy organization. However, if yours is more dysfunctional, you may find your bosses are unresponsive or unwilling to meet with you to resolve them. This requires a different approach.

If you're in a fear-based environment, then consider how to keep yourself safe. That is, you may have to be bold and figure out which of the managers you work with has the most power and "reporting the losses" accordingly - which manager could hurt you the least.

Understand the politics between your bosses and then make a thoughtful, reflective decision about whose request or demand to follow. You won't please both. Such is life in a more dysfunctional workplace.

I wish you well and hope your managers resolve their conflict from a place of mutual respect, understanding and integrity.

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About our Expert

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.