How to Handle an Unpredictable Boss

Do you need help dealing with a boss who keeps changing your priorities? The Public Speaker has smart tips for handling this tricky situation.

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #284

Tip #1: Be Cooperative

This topic must be approached with caution and forethought. Instead of saying something like, "Well, what about all my other projects? I don't think I can add more to my plate right now." 

Try this instead: "The new project sounds really interesting. Can we talk about what it’s going take to complete it?"

Think of it this way - instead of saying that it can’t be done, say "Here’s what I need to get it done." It puts a much more positive, collaborative spin on the situation. 

Tip #2: Clarify Priorities

Make it a habit to go through your work projects with your boss regularly. This gives your manager the opportunity to make changes.

It’s your job to ask the right questions:

  • Is this our new top priority?

  • Should I finish my other two projects before I start this new one?

  • Is there someone who can take over a couple of my projects so I can focus on this one?

  • If you need me to work on all the projects at the same time, then we'll need to change the deadlines for each of them.  

The idea is to help your manager understand the realistic impact of the new project they're assigning.  

Tip #3: Put it in Writing

Document your projects, deadlines, and priorities and have your boss sign off on them. Anytime there’s a change, write it down and have your boss sign off again. Keep a paper trail or an email trail. Having an active, documented committment will help everyone to understand and remember what's already been agreed on. 

However, even if you follow all this advice, you still may need to confront your manager about the constant shifts in priorities.

Be careful. Don’t attack your boss with words like "whimsical" or "indecisive." Simply state the facts. Say that you’ve noticed that your work priorities have been changing from week to week (and if necessary you can bring your documentation of these shifts) and as a result, you’re not accomplishing your goals. Say you'd like to accomplish the goals not only for you to be more successful, but to also help your boss be more successful. Again, the idea is to show the impact of the shifting priorities, not point fingers or complain.

Oh and about multi-tasking - my sister, Deborah Boehm-Davis, happens to be a psychologist who studies dissruptions. It turns out that no one really multi-tasks - they just switch from one activity to another.  There is now hard science to show that multi-tasking doesn't work - it's less efficient. Maybe you can send him some articles that explains the myth of multi-tasking

See also: How to Juggle Multiple Projects


This is Lisa B. Marshall, Helping you maximize sales, manage perceptions, and enhance leadership through keynotes, workshops, books, and online courses. Passionate about communication; your success is my business.

If you want even more success in your life, I invite you to read my latest book, Smart Talk and listen to my other podcast, Smart Talk: Inspiring Conversations with Exceptional People.

Angry boss and priorities images courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.