Imagine an 800-pound gorilla leashed to each of your wrists, yanking in opposite directions. That's the worst-case scenario for anyone who's got two bosses making conflicting demands. Pat Walsh, senior vice president of human resources for Merrill Lynch, has seen (and experienced) his share of these torture sessions. Walsh reports directly to both Dave Komansky and Herb Allison, chairman and president respectively of Merrill Lynch. He oversees 600 employees, and more than a few have come to him for advice when they've been caught between dueling bosses. How does Walsh advise his colleagues on avoiding the cross fire? He offers a three-step battle plan.
- Begin a fact-finding mission.
Sit down separately with each of your bosses and learn the reasoning behind their points of view. Walsh suggests keeping the conversations neutral and balanced, making it clear that you're aiming to gain a better understanding of what's expected of you.
"If you have good relationships with both of them," says Walsh, "you don't need to beat around the bush. Tell each boss that one is sending you left and one is sending you right. They need to give you marching orders that will put you on middle ground."
- Devise a strategy for self-preservation.
If your relationship with either boss is less than stellar, Walsh advises that you research past business cycles to find circumstances similar to the ones you're facing. "Two people with opposing viewpoints cannot both be absolutely right. You've got to apply your own business sense to the situation and come up with what you think is the best course of action."
- Act like a corporate diplomat.
Sit down with both bosses, explain your thinking, and recommend the course that your research shows is right. "Say, for example, 'I know you feel strongly about cost control, and as you probably realize, my other boss feels differently. He thinks it's more important to expand our client base. Here are five concrete ways to expand the business without spending too much extra money.' After all, there have to be ways to grow the business without blowing the budget."
Telling your bosses that they should consider changing course requires guts and the skill of a diplomat. But Walsh, who's been on both sides of the conversation, believes it's the only way to go.
"I once took an opposing point of view to a former chairman of ours," Walsh recalls, "and I finished up by telling him that I didn't want to seem presumptuous. He told me that he loves it when other people do his thinking for him. And that's the right response. When you're part of a team, you have to tell your boss what you really think.
"Besides, in most cases these are philosophical differences," Walsh continues. "You're not telling the guy that you just had sex with his wife. This is about the way a business is run."
Coordinates: Pat Walsh, firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.