How to Deal When You and Your Boss
Disagree on Priorities
You have your day planned out, your to-do list ranked, and you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work. You’re just getting started when your boss unexpectedly stops by your desk and drops a bomb on you: She needs something time-pressing taken care of by the end of the day—meaning your whole carefully planned productivity strategy (not to mention the other urgent things you had on your plate for that day!) is out the window.
Or, maybe you’re spearheading a large project for your team. You think that starting with this specific piece makes sense, while your manager is standing firm that you should begin with a totally different part of the project.
Regardless of your specific situation, the point remains the same: You and your boss are disagreeing about your priorities.
Sigh. This can present you with some murky waters to navigate. On one hand, you want to feel trusted to approach your work as you see fit. But, at the same time, your boss is in charge—you don’t want to seem like you’re bucking authority and being defiant.
It’s a tricky situation—but a common one. In fact, assigning deadlines without any knowledge of an employee’s current workload is one of the most frequent complaints about bosses.
So, what can you do? When you and your boss can’t seem to meet in the middle and identify some aligning priorities, what’s your best move? Here’s what you need to know.
You and your boss need to get this sorted out. And, that’s not something that’s going to happen through endless short emails or passive aggressive comments said in passing around the coffee pot.
Instead, you need to ask your manager for some time when you can sit down and have a direct conversation about your conflicting priorities. Send your boss a short email that looks something like this:
I’m hoping I can get twenty minutes of your time to discuss [issue] and ensure that we’re both on the same page moving forward. Do you have some free time today or tomorrow when we could chat?
By doing that, you’ll be assured that you have your boss’ undivided attention, as well as some dedicated time when you can talk things through and hash out a resolution.
When someone disagrees with you, it’s easy to assume maliciousness. Your boss just doesn’t understand your job. Who is he to tell you how to get your work done? He can’t just swoop in and throw off your whole to-do list!
However, perspective-taking can be a powerful tool in this situation. Before jumping to conclusions, it’s important to get a greater understanding of where your boss is coming from.
To do so, you should ask some questions during your conversation with your supervisor. Why does he believe this certain task should take precedence? Why is it so time-pressing? Does he think this is important enough to deserve priority over the other important things you have on your to-do list?
Getting the answers to those questions might sway you to your supervisor’s point of view—and, then again, it might not. But, either way, you’ll have taken the time to comprehend where he’s coming from—which always leads to a more productive conversation.
Ultimately, you need to respect your boss’ final say. But, that doesn’t mean you need to do so without ever having an opinion or viewpoint of your own.
After you’ve asked your boss those questions about his or her point of view, it’s time for you to state where you’re coming from. Explain your own priorities and back them up with evidence as to why you believe those things should take precedence.
Does that project carry more weight? Is the deadline sooner? Are there dire consequences if that isn’t completed on time?
Walk your boss through your workload and your way of thinking. Again, maybe you won’t persuade her to side with you. But, at least you can rest assured that you got all of the facts out on the table. That way, if there is some fallout, your manager can’t claim that she was in the dark about any potential negative results.
This seems obvious. After all, the very reason you scheduled that talk is so you could both agree on your next steps.
However, conversations have a way of winding, weaving, and exploring tangents—meaning it’s easier than you think to wander out of your boss’ office feeling even more confused than you went in.
For that reason, it’s important that you walk away from that chat knowing exactly what your plan of attack is. At the end of your conversation—after you’ve both presented your sides and talked through an agreement—summarize your decision with something like this:
“Alright, per our discussion here, I will start with [task] and have it completed by [deadline], and then move on to [task], [task], and [task]. This means that [other task] will have to be pushed to the back burner for now.”
An explicit statement like this confirms that you both have a shared understanding, and you can feel empowered in tackling your workload with that approach.
Maybe that resolution will prove that you were right all along. Or, maybe you’ll have to agree to disagree and concede to your boss’ approach.
Ultimately, your boss is the one in charge—which means that whatever he or she says goes. Continuing to stick to your guns, complain, and assert that your way is better after you’ve already had that one frank conversation is what will make you appear defiant and difficult.
You’ve had your chance to present your thoughts. And, now, it’s time to respect your boss’ directions and decision—whether you agree with it or not.
Disagreeing with your boss on priorities can be a sticky situation, and it’s tough to walk that fine line between advocating for yourself and seeming overly aggressive.
Fortunately, following these steps should make the process far easier. There’s no guarantee that things will go your way. But, at the very least, you’ll be able to move forward with the confidence that you and your boss are on the same page.