Bosses and team leaders are supposed to be the pillars you lean on for clarity, but sometimes what they do and say seems more jumbled than a toddler's toy box. Sometimes this happens simply because businesses (or entire industries) are trying to walk the fence between two ideologies, in which case the issue is more systemic than a case of individual shortcomings. But since getting conflicting messages can impede your tasks and do a number on you psychologically, either way, you need to take steps to eliminate the confusion.
1. Take impeccable notes.
Leaders sometimes reject the notion that they've given contradictory messages because they legitimately can't remember what was said or because they don't want to accept the ding to their egos. Taking notes creates a record you can refer to and use for comparison. Give your boss a copy of what you've written for review and approval, and keep the notes organized according to project. Make sure everything is clearly labeled and dated. Voice recordings are acceptable, but you might need approval to record first according to the company's privacy and confidentiality policies.
2. Say how you feel (with evidence).
While the contradictions might seem obvious to you, your boss might not perceive them without your help. Be honest and explain that you feel like you're getting instructions that conflict. Use your notes to give specific examples. Once you've proven the contradictions exist, ask your boss for advice on how to handle them, such as "What do you recommend I do to pull both of these off at the same time?" or "How would you prioritize these yourself?" It's OK to use some humor here to prevent your boss from becoming defensive and shutting you down! And ideally, don't wait to point the contradiction out. Bring it to their attention as soon as you notice it and ask them to clarify their intent and preferences.
3. Create specific protocols or systems.
The idea here is that if you have some standards in place for your work that your boss knows about, it's harder for your boss to veer off in left field. The work stays streamlined, which reduces the chance of interference.
4. Get to know your boss and the company better.
You might not have access to all information for the business. That's OK. But spending a little more time with your leader, observing and asking questions can give you a better understanding of what they really want and what their thought processes are like. It can give you insights about the pressures the boss is under and what the business really is trying to accomplish at any given point.
5. Present the future.
Politely paint a picture for your boss of what might happen if you do everything they've said. For example, you might say, "I understand what you're asking, but if I go ahead with that, we might run into problems with...", "I'm concerned that that could cause..." or "Given [previous instructions, facts or events], if I do what you're asking now, then..." They might need you to offer this foresight if they are overwhelmed with here-and-now demands and don't have sufficient time to consider all the potential ramifications of what they're telling you.
6. Go to HR.
This is a last resort, but if leadership truly is unclear, HR can diffuse worsening conflicts and work with your boss to clarify goals. They also can provide training that can help your boss recognize conflicting messages and communicate better. If you have to use this route, try to present it positively, such as "I'd love to see if HR has any ideas on how we can get on the same page and help us understand each other more." This comes off as more team oriented and compromising, signaling a vote of confidence in your boss' ability to learn and change for the better.
Being pulled in two (or more) directions is never fun. But don't assume that because you aren't calling the final shots that you can't do something about the confusion. Once you decide to be proactive, you can be a powerful advocate not only for yourself, but for the boss who can learn from you, too.