Surviving (and even Thriving) in the Matrix
A New Skillset for Today's Business Environement
A matrix makes sense to the organization…
Organizations are moving away from traditional command-and-control hierarchies. This evolution is imperative in adapting to an increasingly complex, global and fast-paced business environment. The structure allows for a focus on multiple business dimensions (such as function, geography, or product) and for organizations to move more nimbly in response to market needs.
…but it presents specific managerial challenges.
The challenge? Many business leaders fail to appreciate the impact that this structural shift has on the employees operating within a matrix. They are trying to run modern organizational hardware on last-century’s human operating system.
Consider this: In a matrix you may have a functional manager who oversees your work and handles your performance reviews, approves your paid time off and performs other managerial duties. At the same time, you have a dotted-line reporting relationship with the head of your region, and yet another indirect reporting relationship with the head of the key product on which you focus. None of these individuals communicate with each other regularly, and they often provide you with objectives that contradict with one another or, at best, compete for your time and energy.
How often do you hear complaints such as “… but they don’t report to me!”, “I can’t make them do it.” or “…should I make this project a priority?”
The behaviors and skills required of employees in a matrix differ from that of a traditional, hierarchical workplace. Behaviors that were once a “nice to have” are now cornerstones to employees’ success and ultimately the organization’s success. Mastering these skills often requires a shift in mindset. Formal training helps to practice and reinforce these matrix-survival behaviors.
In traditional organizations, employees often fall into the silo mentality, where departments and product lines vie for resources and see themselves as “us versus them” as opposed to part of the organizational whole (Sy & D’Annunzio, 2005¹). In a matrix organization, this mindset will ultimately lead to gridlock. Employees and leaders need to be equipped with skills, structures and processes that help them to collaborate more effectively. Here are some ideas to drive collaborative behaviors in your organization:
- Ensure clarity of broad organizational goals and communicate how departmental and individual goals contribute to the bigger picture. The more people feel part of something bigger than themselves or their department, the more collaboration will increase.
- Link your reward systems to collaborative behaviors or team achievements. If you’re requiring collaboration but rewarding individual achievements, you may be inadvertently undermining your structure.
- Create opportunities for cross-departmental or cross-functional teambuilding, knowledge sharing and networking. Sometimes we don’t collaborate with others simply because we don’t know them or we have a lack of knowledge about their perspective.
If collaboration is a cornerstone of effective matrix performance, then communication and interpersonal skills become critical. Arming your employees with an appreciation and understanding of individual differences in personality, communication styles and working preferences will go a long way in establishing more effective working relationships, reducing conflict and increasing efficiency. Training in foundational communication skills, such as asking good questions and listening actively, will also help employees to succeed. These skills are often considered “basic” or “elementary,” but we’ve learned that even seasoned leaders benefit from a refresher and an increase in consciousness around these behaviors.
Influencing without authority
In matrix organizations, lines of authority become blurred. The multi-axis structure generally includes various indirect reporting relationships and interdependencies across multiple business dimensions. This requires that both leaders and individual contributors are well-equipped to influence others in order to be successful. As collaboration and cooperation become more important, it becomes imperative that you have the ability to influence others without relying on formal authority. How can you go about accomplishing this?
- Establish your credibility — show your competence in the topic or task at hand, exude confidence, be consistent in your words, personality and behaviors. If others find you credible, you’ll have a much greater chance of influencing successfully.
- Build trust — without a foundation of trust, influencing becomes nearly impossible. To build and maintain trust with colleagues, be honest, communicate often, admit your shortcomings and mistakes, and follow through on your word.
- Know your audience — just because you’ve successfully influenced someone using a particular strategy in the past, it’s likely the same strategy would not be successful on a different individual or in a different situation or context. Doing a deep analysis of the people involved in your influencing situation — their personal goals, values, needs and preferences — and the context of the situation will help you to figure out a targeted approach for influencing that will drive your success.
The work of Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones in Why Should Anyone Be Led by You? becomes inherently important for leaders in a matrix environment. Leaders get results by making their CASE with their followers: They must build Community, show their Authenticity, communicate the Significance of the employees’ roles and work, and create a sense of Excitement in their teams. In doing this, leaders will become empowered and see results that would have otherwise been impossible without this inclusive approach to leadership.
Inclusive leadership — a cultural shift
Gone are the days when “command and control” leadership drove results. Due to the dual-reporting structure common to the matrix, leaders are required to engage in collaborative decision-making (Sy & D’Annunzio, 2005¹). Sometimes the leaders are not even involved in the decisions; rather, decisions are made by those who are closer to the knowledge and day-to-day operations of the business. Leaders cannot use formal power bases to engage and motivate followers — instead, they must rely on personal power and interpersonal relationships.
This is a significant shift for leaders who “grew up” in more traditional organizations. Making this change requires focus and attention. Organizations that don’t purposefully set these new expectations for managers put their culture at risk.
Make the changes, capture the benefits
Moving to a non-hierarchical model is the only way that companies can respond to the pressures of today’s competitive environment. This is not a trend that anybody anticipates reversing. However, to keep employees engaged in the tumultuous work environment, organizations need to equip them with the skills to navigate and operate in this different environmental context. By developing communication, collaboration and specific leadership skills, these organizations can capture the benefits of a matrix structure while avoiding the pitfalls that will limit their success.
¹Sy, T., & D’Annunzio, S. (2005). Challenges and strategies of matrix organizations: Top-level and mid-level managers’ perspectives. HR: Human Resource Planning, 28(1), 39-50.