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There is conflict in my workplace that is much higher up than me. I am a receptionist/admin person in a small branch of a large organisation.

As a result of this situation, I have been given contradictory instructions by my manager, Bob, and Bob's manager, Alice. Specifically, Alice told me to do something, and Bob told me not to do it. They are both aware of this.

My instinct is to follow the instructions of my direct supervisor Bob. He is the person I work most closely with, and a relationship with whom my day-to-day work relies on. I would like to think that implementing Alice's will is a matter for Bob, not for me. It also happens to be the do-nothing path. A friend of mine who works in the corporate world suggested to me that without further context, they would follow Alice's instructions as she is higher up and has authority over Bob.

This question deals with something similar, except that there is a knowledge asymmetry in that situation and differing roles of owners/managers. The other answer suggests following the most recent instruction, but that would not work in my case (the situation hasn't changed, and whoever issues the most recent instruction will be a matter of chance. I also don't want to agree to the most recent instruction, only to then subsequently agree to a future contradictory one).

The stakes here are in fact comically low. It doesn't really matter which path I take in this situation, and both Alice and Bob are sympathetic to me being caught in the middle of this conflict. However, I am interested in whether there is a broad expectation here. In workplaces in general, whose instructions would I be expected to follow? I am new to offices and already this situation has come up today, and once in my previous job.

Cultural context is that I am Australian. For American answerers, culture is similar but workers have more rights and are more highly paid and unionised. For European answerers, culture is similar but workers have less rights and are less unionised. From reading answers on workplace SE, I think the workplace is less rigidly hierarchical than in South Asia or East Asia.

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    Who was the last one to tell you what to do? If they are both aware about the other's instruction, how comes nobody talks to you about that?
    – puck
    Nov 27 '20 at 6:14
  • It's been done over email. I'll see Bob in the office in a couple of days, at which point I imagine that either the situation will be resolved, I will explain to Bob why I'm going to follow Alice's instructions, or email Alice explaining why I won't be doing what they've asked. Nov 27 '20 at 6:47
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    It would be very helpful to know what, exactly, is the conflict/conflicting orders at play here? You say the stakes are comically low so hopefully it's something you can share?
    – Kaz
    Nov 27 '20 at 12:51
  • It's about how/whether to communicate details of somebody's resignation to the rest of the organisation. Imagine the president of a local sports club or a community group resigning. Low stakes, but lots of ego and politics Nov 29 '20 at 6:45
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What I do when I receive conflicting instructions/priorities is send an email with both (or all 3, 4 parties) as the recipients, saying for example:

Hello, I've been receiving conflicting instructions about XXX. I'm all fine with doing whatever is requested, but can you please discuss the matter with each other and come back to me when you have reached a decision about what I should do?

This removes you gracefully from the equation until they sort it out. If you can already start on the task (because the decision will matter later in the process), I would do it so that when decision comes you're already advanced on that. If the task is completely depending on the decision, I would switch to another priority.

When they reach back to you, if it's with a "reply to all" then fine, you know all parties agree. If it's only one party coming back, depending on how you trust that party you might want to confirm in writing to all parties the decision that was taken. I happen to do that myself sometimes to avoid situations like "I never told you to do that" (usually when there's been earlier cases of bad faith), but I try to limit it to very important matters because I don't want to sound too procedural/official over a somewhat insignificant decision...

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  • Makes sense in general, but in this specific case we have "Alice told me to do something, and Bob told me not to do it. They are both aware of this ." from the question, so it rather sounds like asker is being hung out to dry...
    – AakashM
    Nov 27 '20 at 14:13
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    Asking it in an email to both of them makes it clear that OP expects a final decision. It makes "being hung out to dry" obvious, as is the fact it is actually a problem (because the other people might know and think "Oh no problem, Bug Catcher Nakata will figure it out"
    – Laurent S.
    Nov 27 '20 at 15:41
  • Thanks. Removing myself from the situation in this way was what I did and it was a good outcome. It seems like these situations are best dealt with as in interpersonal problem rather than a hierarchy problem. Thanks for your answer Nov 30 '20 at 2:38
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Personally, I'm a believer in chain of command - going above your boss's head seems wrong, if you do as instructed by your manager and your manager's manager is unhappy with that, that seems to me like a problem for your manager's manager to solve.

So if Alice were to be unhappy about that, I would suggest she take it up with Bob, and I would use the same explanation as to why: respecting the chain of command.

Part of the reason for this is to avoid politicking to a degree - I'm doing this on principle, and even if I were to disagree with my manager's decision.

There could be exceptions to this rule - like being asked to do something I disagree with on principle, and my manager not being open to any arguments - so I could in general consider going above my manager's head - but that's the rule I tend to follow.

This resolves the conflict without making it personal, and puts the ball back in court where it belongs - Alice needs to make sure Bob does what she expects of him, not circumvent him by ordering you around directly.

That said, of course this needs to be assessed for the indivuals in play here, if Alice appears like she might take this badly, you may have to make a judgement call to approach this differently.

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    If you reached out to your boss's boss, that would be going over their head. If they reach out to you then it's not.
    – Kaz
    Nov 27 '20 at 12:53
  • Maybe. Until your boss tells you what to do explicitly.
    – bytepusher
    Nov 28 '20 at 1:10
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In situations where you have unclear or conflicting directives, the underlying expectation is almost always for you to take the initiative and get the job done as you see fit.

This behavior is what is meant in job descriptions when they indicate they're looking for someone who "takes initiative". It means they want you to exercise good judgment and be responsible for the outcome.

Moreover, given that you said for this situation...

The stakes here are in fact comically low. It doesn't really matter which path I take in this situation, and both Alice and Bob are sympathetic to me being caught in the middle of this conflict.

That's a clear signal that they want you to "figure it out" and, in fact, you should see this as a way for them to gauge your decision-making/judgment in a low-risk fashion.

The best thing you can do is to promptly decide what you're going to do and then tell them and get the job done. If there's a problem they will stop you, but more likely neither of them want to think much about the task. They see it as "your job."

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  • I think this is a good answer. In my specific situation, there is a bit of a clash of egos going on, so it's not that simple. But this is a legitimate interpretation of the question I actually asked Nov 30 '20 at 2:32
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In your specific situation I would do nothing. Doing something sets a precedent and I won't help you when this issue comes up again. The problem is that your boss and his boss are both being unprofessional as they're making a joke out of things. Usually following the chain of command is right but in some industries it depends on the issue.

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  • Just to be clear, would 'following the chain of command' mean my direct supervisor or the higher up person? Nov 27 '20 at 2:06
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    @BugCatcherNakata "Chain of Command" in this context means who you directly report to is the only person you take orders from. So yes, your direct supervisor.
    – HenryM
    Nov 27 '20 at 4:35

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