Help! My Boss Keeps Changing Our Goals

When the goals keep changing, it’s hard to know where to focus efforts. Here are some possible solutions.

Q: My boss has shifting priorities. One week we’re chasing one goal; the next week, another goal entirely. Or she’ll give me instructions on how to do a task, then email me later with totally different details – or even overhaul the work I just did, using her new ideas. How can I get her to settle down with all the conflicting instructions?

A: I can totally empathize with you on this as I once worked at a startup where the goals shifted faster than the golden snitch at the Quidditch World Cup. Our team would be zooming down the pitch – stay with me on the “Harry Potter” metaphor, people – only to have our supervisor move the scoring hoops.

Rapidly shifting goals is disorienting and wastes time, and I used to think this was a sign of a business in trouble or an inexperienced manager. But I’ve gained a new perspective after reaching out to Karl Prater, an expert in interpersonal and systemic issues, to help answer your question. Prater is a licensed marriage and family therapist who provides consultation and therapy services on Hawai‘i Island.

It’s normal human nature to send mixed messages, he observes. People mull things over, redo their to-do lists, get pressure from their boss on a new initiative, or rethink their approach for endless other reasons. His advice is to have your boss share in the liability of the decision-making. “If you are given tasks that seem equally important, you could say, ‘Wow, this Task B sounds important, and Task A sounds important, too. Which would you like me to prioritize?’ That way, you’re putting some of the responsibility for the decision back on your boss,” says Prater.

This can get more complicated, he notes, if you are expected to be autonomous. Still, you can only work so many hours a day. If you are paid hourly, this may involve an overtime situation, and you may need to say something like, “I can do this if you approve overtime for X amount of time.” But workers on salary also have challenges, says Prater. “You want to impress your boss, of course, but can’t set the baseline of your work output so high that it’s not sustainable.”

He suggests depersonalizing the situation. “Make it about the customers, or the job description,” he says, and remember, the responsibility for communication always involves both parties. “The boss should check in, and the employee should ask for feedback. Sometimes, though, it’s better to ask for feedback … before you get feedback.”


Q: In college, I casually knew a guy who is now being considered for a job at the same company I work for. He apparently dropped my name in his interview, so my supervisor asked for my feedback. His skills are a great fit, and I remember him as a gregarious, smart person. But I also recall seeing him cheat on exams by getting out his cellphone. Maybe I should have said something to the instructor at the time, but honestly, I just wanted to focus on my own grades. Should I mention these past observations to my boss or say nothing and let him have a fresh start? I mean, this was four years ago and we all do dumb things when we are young.

A: You are noble for acknowledging that we all grow and change, hopefully for the better, as we mature. Whether or not you should have said something to the instructor back in the day is complicated. Some colleges and universities have honor codes requiring that type of reporting, while others only lay out anti-cheating rules for the individual. But his past behavior raises red flags. For one thing, you didn’t say “exam,” you said “exams.” Multiple. That’s a man with a plan, not someone panicking one time and later being racked with regret.

Recent research published in the Journal of Marketing Education suggests that students with lax attitudes about cheating in school are more likely to later display unethical behavior in the workforce. The study – “Tolerance for Cheating From the Classroom to the Boardroom: A Study of Underlying Personal and Cultural Drivers” – found that group-oriented students, also called “collectivists,” were overall more relaxed about cheating, while “individualists” felt more harshly toward it. Cheating in school, the study warns, “could manifest later as turning a blind eye to unethical business behavior or participating in a cover-up,” wrote the study’s lead author, Glen Brodowsky. Brodowsky is a professor of marketing and chair of management at California State University San Marcos.

So yes, since you were asked, I would tell the hiring manager that you have concerns based on what you witnessed in the past. What he or she does with that information is up to them.

More on the study at


Q: Help! I have to work the same counter as a crazy cat lady. She has four cats and literally doesn’t talk about anything else. She got a new kitten and took a whole week off work. She came in crying one day over one cat’s lab results. She is usually wearing a ton of fur – cat hair everywhere – and yes, she sometimes wears a shirt with cat designs on it. I’m at my wit’s end having to listen to all this fur-baby stuff. 

A: Fun fact: Hobos used a system of signs and symbols to scrawl messages to each other as they traveled the railroads and byways of America. The sign of a cat conveyed to the next hobo, presumably in search of a meal or place to camp, that “a nice lady lives here.”

My point? Despite her narrow range of interests, she’s probably a perfectly nice, caring lady. You don’t share her enthusiasm, true, but try to be bemused, instead of irritated. To many people, their pets are as important as human offspring, a trend that is only growing. Consider this: Americans spent $7.5 billion on their pets in 2019, a steep rise from 2010’s $4.8 billion, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

Engage her briefly in conversation about her beloved companions, which will be catnip to her ears, then redirect attention back to your work. May I also suggest an economy-size lint roller?


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