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Three Rules for Managing Conflicting Priorities

CG Orange people around a conference table watching two of them fighting on top of the table.
Image Credit: Scott Maxwell ( via Flickr

I thought to begin this post with one of those, “If I had a dime for every time I saw a job posting…” situations. However, the more I thought about it and the more I considered cleaver analogies, the more I became aware that the trope – and it is surely so overused as to be a trope by now – about working in a position with multiple conflicting priorities is really an indicator deep, underlying problems in an organization’s alignment with its objectives.

So, how do we fix it?

Rule 1: List Priorities in Order

First, although the phrase creates a picture of an organization stuck in the middle of many forces that all have equal priority and weight; you must understand that all priorities are inherently hierarchical. When considered against the organization’s goals – assuming those goals are adequately defined and understood – all priorities can be ordered from greatest to least, with no two priorities occupying the same level. Sure, there may be similar priorities, but at a sufficiently granular level, they can be clearly ordered against the organization’s goals.

Rule 2: Eliminate “Floating” Priorities

Next, make sure priorities are not “floating” as whims change. The effort and resources expended on true organizational priorities are obvious if those priorities are anchored to a firm understanding of what is truly important. When priorities float, however, it is really an indication that the priorities are decoupled from organizational goals, or that the goals themselves are poorly defined or understood. Floating priorities are not priorities at all, but whims. Alternately, they may be an indication of organizational cultural values that are unstated, thus not codified in the organization’s objectives.

Rule 3: Commit Resources, Top-to-Bottom

The third piece is to realize that the hierarchical nature of priorities means that we can make a list that goes on forever, and our accomplishment threshold is only the limit of resources we have. In essence, once we have our priorities enumerated properly in accordance with our organization’s goals, we have but to commit resources top-to-bottom, stopping when we run out of resources. Understand that we will never run out of priorities. Anything that we can’t commit resources to is, by definition, not important enough to do.

Bonus Rule: Conflicting Priorities are Really Conflicting Objectives

By now, you see that we should never have a true conflict of priorities if our objectives are clear and our desired outcomes are identified. If, for example, you find that you are in a


situation where you are conflicted between delivering a quality product late or a good-but-not-great product on time, you simply need to back up and consider your objectives. If you go back to your list of priorities, you’ll see all of the necessary properties, in hierarchical order, to resolve the issue. You may find that you are asking a lot of questions such as:

  • Is quality or on-time delivery most important?
  • Do we know the client’s preferences for either of those?
  • Does the client preference override our organization’s identity? (If so, you need to rethink your organization’s identity.)
  • Does the client value quality or on-time delivery more?

Keep asking questions until you get to the clarity you need regarding which of these so-called competing priorities warrants your resources and do that one.

Rather than posting jobs telling people that they need to manage multiple conflicting priorities, how about getting to the core of how candidates discover priorities and how they commit resources to meet them in the most effective and efficient way. Rather than painting a picture that your organization hasn’t a clue about why it is doing what it does, how about selecting people for roles who know now to align effort with outcomes, with the most important outcome at the top of the list.

About the Author:

Dr. Philip D. Mann is an experienced trainer, speaker, and problem solver who gets things done. His primary expertise is employee engagement and the people side of how organizations grow and (resist) change. He also knows a thing or two about the government works, and those principles apply to all large, bureaucratic structures. If you need help getting things done, reach out to Dr. Mann here on LinkedIn or at

Published inBenefitsDecisions and Decision AnalysisEmotional Quotient (EQ)Employee EngagementLeaders and ManagersLinkedInMillennialsRecruitmentRelationshipsUncategorized

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