How to Handle Conflicting Instructions at Work

Remaining professional in the workplace

By Natalie Winzer, iHire
Professional mediating a conflict between two coworkers

Your supervisors give you conflicting instructions. (The VP of HR wants all company correspondence typed in Times New Roman and the Creative Director tells you to change it to Cambria. You are in the middle of a project for the Customer Service Manager and the Marketing Supervisor gives you another project, stating that it is more important and your other assignments can wait).

Having a “can do” attitude is an essential trait of successful administrative professionals. Balancing concurring assignments and supporting multiple team members are critical skills as well. But what happens when those assignments not only intersect, but conflict? For example, Manager A tells you that all correspondence should be in Times New Roman. Manager B makes you change theirs to Cambria.  You’re in the middle of a project for Manager A due by EOD tomorrow, but then Manager B gives you a rush assignment and tells you that Manager A won’t mind if their project is delayed. As a loyal and hardworking employee, what do you do?

Don’t be afraid to speak up and be straightforward! Saying no is hard in a role where your core responsibility is to help others, but to quote Aesop, “If you try to please all, you please none.” The sooner you bring both parties together to discuss the conflicting instructions, the better. Get yourself out of that uncomfortable feeling of being stuck between two people. When Manager B tells you to change the font, respond politely but firmly: “I would be happy to take care of that for you, but Manager A gave me explicit instructions in the past to type all company correspondence in Times New Roman. I am meeting with Manager A in 30 minutes, would you mind joining so we can all briefly discuss this together?” Get your managers on the same page and nip the issue in the bud.

Additionally, be sure to maintain a solutions-oriented approach. Don’t think of yourself as just saying no – think of yourself as saying yes to something else. Becoming visibly frustrated or firing back a quick, negative response will not help.  When Manager B tells you to stop working on Manager A’s project, again stand firm but offer a solution: “I appreciate the urgency of your project, but it was my understanding that Manager A’s project deadline was strict as well. I have a meeting this afternoon that can be rescheduled, so let me move a few things around to ensure your project deadline can be met as well,” or, “Let me touch base with Administrative Assistants B and C for you – they might have the capacity to take on your project this afternoon.”

Now if the conversations don’t go well, you’re likely facing a larger problem – two bosses that don’t get along – that is not your responsibility to solve. But if you do your best to address the situation by communicating the issue and offering solutions, you can be confident you took the right steps in handling the conflicting instructions.

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