Help! My Boss Keeps Changing Priorities on Me!

Last Updated Feb 22, 2010 10:11 AM EST

Dear Ron, My boss is constantly changing priorities on me, making me feel like I'm just spinning my wheels. How can I address this issue without sounding like I'm complaining or not a team player?
The first thing to do is try to determine what the reasons are for the constant shifting, and to do this, you must look above your boss and around him. Many companies are in industries that are in turmoil now, and as a result, they're constantly looking for ways to increase revenues and even new business models. The frequent switching by your boss may simply be a reflection of this, and nothing idiosyncratic about him or personal to you. And if that is indeed the case, you likely will have to prepare yourself that you may be in this kind of unstable environment for a while. Even though it doesn't really change the environment for you, understanding why these changes are taking place will at least make them more rational and hopefully less frustrating.

If it's not the case that it's your industry as a whole that's causing all the shifting, then you want to focus on your boss. What might be driving him to set and continually change these priorities? Is he operating out of insecurity, or just plain disorganized? If it's the former, then you might work with him to try to anticipate his concerns and in doing so, reassure him that things are under control. If it's the latter, you might step in and offer to help your boss get a handle on some of his tasks and thereby get him to focus on maintaining more constant priorities.

Whatever the case, in order to protect yourself, you need to make sure you lay out a work plan detailing your priorities and get sign off from your boss on them, knowing that they may be tossed for new priorities at any time. If that does indeed happen, at least you can go back through each of your previous plans and chronicle the results you got. What you don't want to have happen is for the chaos of changing priorities to obscure your ability to get results. After all, your boss might have told you to dig a hole and then quickly moved on to something else, but in the meantime, he may have forgotten that you've just dug a six-foot hole for him.

The other thing that having detailed work plans will do for you is help manage your own equilibrium. For now, you may have to simply accept that you're going to be on a ship that's constantly tossing, but having a plan will at least put as much of the process as possible under your own control.

One additional point: While you could go to your boss and discuss your frustrations about the constant shift in priorities, I'd focus more on getting some agreement about how you both should proceed in this environment, rather than directly or indirectly accusing your boss of being indecisive. Your objective should be to re-negotiate your understanding with your boss over what's expected of you, given the shifting landscape, and not to assign blame. Good luck.

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  • Ron Brown

    Ronald B. Brown is a leading expert in the fields of leadership development and organizational change. He is the founder and president of Banks Brown, a management consulting firm that specializes in providing leading-edge skills to optimize the performance of leaders and organizations. He has served as a consultant to Fortune 100 corporations such as the Procter & Gamble Company, Avon Products, Inc., McDonald's Corporation, General Electric Plastics, Kaiser Permanente, Shell Oil Company, Eastman Kodak Company, General Mills Inc., and Motorola, Inc. Brown holds a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, and an M.A. and B.S. from Michigan State University.