Multiple reporting lines: how to manage those who manage you

As an in-house lawyer, it’s likely you feel accountable to multiple internal stakeholders, all with their own demands, interests and ways of working. Mila Trezza, founder at Coaching Lawyers and former general counsel for a Fortune 500 company, advises how to navigate and find opportunities within these complex relationships.
Two women professionals are sitting at a desk and speaking. A white woman with brown hair and glasses, wearing a beige jacket and black shirt is holding an ipad and talking to her colleague. A black woman wearing a black jacket is talking to her.
Photograph: Portra

Whether reporting to a senior executive and the group general counsel or a maze of geographical, functional and hierarchical reports, the complexity of solid and dotted lines can get complicated.

The confusion over accountability – or even competition over loyalty – resulting from multiple reporting lines often originates from a common problem: if your managers don’t talk (much), they both see you as 100% theirs.

When both vie for your time, you may end up juggling two full-time jobs.

But despite the chaos of their multiple (if not conflicting) demands, you have unique opportunities too.

Let’s look at both sides of the equation.

1. Why two bosses?

Ever wondered why you have two bosses? The reason why many organisations employ multiple reporting lines is usually to achieve one or more of the following:

  • ensure multi-disciplinary perspectives and higher challenge to ideas
  • maximise internal coordination
  • promote cross-functionality and fertilisation
  • create more opportunities for professional growth and career development
  • broaden internal networks through wider team dynamics

However, the reality is, in many organisations, these benefits are daily stress-tested by more than one challenge.

2. Juggling conflicting requests and competing deadlines

One of the most common frustrations in role overlapping is the confusion over priorities.

Which manager’s request should you prioritise, especially during hectic periods?

When managers fail to communicate effectively, their conflicting requests may also be magnified by misaligned agendas, which can stem from their own conflicting reporting lines.

Furthermore, what may excite your dotted-line manager A may leave your solid-line manager B indifferent, if not entirely disinterested.

Now, is it your responsibility to fix this? In all fairness, probably not.

But there is an opportunity to determine the exact boundaries of your role better and draw some lines to improve things.

You may find it helpful to meet with both your managers to discuss their exact expectations.

Questions you might want to ask could be:

  • what are you expected to deliver?
  • when?
  • how do they want you to resolve conflicting demands on your time?
  • who makes decisions?
  • who has the final say, for example, when changing a deadline?

Furthermore, you might also find it helpful to summarise what was agreed upon during the conversation in writing.

By doing so, if, for example, manager A suggests you get involved in a new project, you can remind them that you previously agreed to allocate only 20% of your time to new projects.

If that now needs to change and your responsibilities are reallocated, you will need to discuss it together.

When simplifying reporting lines is not an option, whether lines are drawn vertically or horizontally or using percentage weights or accountabilities, high clarity is crucial for sustaining productivity and preventing confusion.

3. Additional responsibility and double work

Uncoordinated reporting lines often lead to overwork.

Manager A may place demands on you without fully understanding your capacity and may be unaware of the responsibilities you already have under manager B.

Together, your managers may assign you more work than you can handle. Don’t expect that they will read your mind unless you tell them.

If you find yourself in this scenario, communicate openly with each manager about your workload.

Discuss your concerns, clarify your current workload and establish a process to update them regularly – for example, by scheduling weekly updates or alignment meetings.

During your meetings with manager A, seize the opportunity to share updates on your overall workload with manager B.

These meetings may also offer a chance for your managers to realise it’s time to take something off your list.

Come up with suggestions for delegation or win-win solutions to streamline your workload.

4. Making it work

One of the greatest challenges you may face is when one manager makes loyalty to them an issue and demands a greater commitment.

If each manager expects 100% of your time and loyalty, sometimes the only viable solution is for one of them to become your only manager.

However, if simplifying the organisational design is not the desired outcome, successfully managing multiple reporting lines will remain a delicate balancing act for you.

You can look for some help internally.

Organisations that provide training, mentoring and coaching to support the skills required for navigating multiple reporting lines are better equipped to ensure their teams are purposefully engaged. They can maximise the benefits of having multiple reports.

If you manage a team and your members struggle with managing conflicting requests, don’t underestimate the support they need.

Offer adequate support, especially when you are onboarding new members.

5. The power of two: more opportunities than you realise

Having multiple reporting lines comes with real potential for learning and growth compared to the confines of a single reporting line and one managerial style.

Here are some of the skills you can hone:

  • effective communication and influence: you can refine your communication, conflict management and influencing skills, especially when dealing with dotted-line managers, where formal authority carries less weight
  • first-hand experience in successful collaborations: you can learn how to build rapport, create inclusivity and promote a greater level of challenge to drive positive outcomes
  • intercultural intelligence: if dealing with people across different geographies, you can cultivate a deeper understanding of cultural differences and what it takes to turn diverse contributions into effective teamwork
  • expanded network: dual reporting offers a unique opportunity to broaden your internal network, doubling your opportunities to increase internal visibility and showcase your contributions
  • negotiation skills: handling difficult conversations can grow your political savviness, such as when one manager navigates difficult waters while the other remains stable

Managing dual reporting lines can be challenging but also rewarding.

These dynamics will push you to develop invaluable skills, some of which you may only fully appreciate over time.

In the long run, these skills will equip you with the resilience needed to manage those who manage you and the inevitable ambiguity of multiple reporting lines – and learn to turn that ambiguity into opportunities.

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Mila Trezza offers executive and leadership coaching for lawyers and legal teams.

Take a look at Mila's Coaching Lawyers website

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