Leading in a Matrix Organization

Matrix Organization

So, you are a leader in a matrix organization. Perhaps you are the Line Manager to whom a Team Member reports directly, although you rarely see each other. Or, maybe you are the “Dotted-line” manager with whom the Team Member works on a daily basis. You might even be the Team Member who is stuck in the middle and works for both the Line and Dotted-line bosses.


The matrix structure has enabled organizations over the past 30+ years to draw employees with expertise to projects and products where they are needed most. But, like any other organizational structure, it is not perfect. Line Managers may be held responsible for results from people they don’t control. Dotted-line Managers often don’t know to whom their Team Members report. Personal agendas and individual egos create a divide between leaders as they compete for the same set of limited resources. And, Team Members have difficulty communicating accomplishments to the Line Managers who supposedly “go to bat” for them when it comes to promotions and performance reviews.


Leading in a matrix organization doesn’t have to be so convoluted. Here are 6 quick guidelines to creating clarity.


Guideline 1: Clarify Roles 


Great leaders establish clear agreements upfront in almost everything they do, and this applies directly to the matrix organization. The Line Manager and Dotted-line Manager should clarify and document their responsibilities. For example: the Line Manager might be responsible for longer-term career development and annual review feedback. The Dotted-line Manager might be responsible for feedback on daily performance and day-to-day operational items.


Guideline 2: Close the Gap 


The most common gap we observe in the field on our leadership development engagements is usually between the Line Manager and Dotted-line Manager. The bottom line is that they usually don’t communicate enough as urgent priorities distract them from making time to align their expectations. To overcome this, they should meet at logical checkpoints such as at at project inception, on a quarterly basis, when significant issues arise, and at project close.


Guideline 3: Teach Your Team Members To Fish


Responsibility for communication doesn’t just lie with the managers. The matrix organization requires that the Team Member be proactive and take responsibility for his or her own career. Team Members have to be courageous enough to seek feedback and report accomplishments. After all, if they don’t toot their horn, no one else will.


Guideline 4: No Surprises


It’s fairly common for the Line Manager to prepare for the annual review by gathering feedback about a Team Member’s performance from the various Dotted-line Managers for whom he worked. The Line Manager then summarizes the information and presents it to the Team Member. Surprise! The Team Member receives feedback that they never heard directly from their Dotted-line Manager throughout the year. This disservice doesn’t give the Team Member a chance to improve their performance. To ensure the matrix structure works effectively, it is critical that the Dotted-line Manager provide timely and behavioral-based feedback so that the Team Member can implement performance improvements throughout the year.


Guideline 5: Be Transparent


A related challenge for Line Managers is that they are often required to provide feedback that they didn’t observe throughout the year. It’s feedback that was provided by the Dotted-line Managers regarding the Team Member’s performance. The process breaks down when the Line Manager anonymizes the feedback leaving the employee guessing about its actual source. There has to be transparency between all parties involved especially when it relates to Team Member development.


Guideline 6: Develop Interpersonal Agility


Requiring that people collaborate outside of their silos necessitates a new level of interpersonal agility where trust and respect truly become the foundation for working relationships. All leaders involved must think beyond their individual egos and agendas. They must develop the self-awareness of how they are perceived by others and then the ability to reflect on and choose their behaviors in the moment so that they maintain open lines of dialogue.


Working within the confines of the matrix organizational structure isn’t easy. But when it works, it works well. People and resources get deployed cross-organizationally and efficiently. But it doesn’t just happen when a leader waves the magic restructuring wand. It takes intentional communication from both top-down and bottom–up to make it work.