Navigating the challenges of leading across a matrix organisation

Successful teamwork

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I’ve been coaching Jordana for nearly five years now. 

She was initially referred to me while I was living in America, but we’ve continued to work together since I came back to Australia in 2019. When I first met her, Jordana was a first-time leader in a fast-growing scale-up in the Bay Area. During COVID she was unfortunately laid off, returned to her home state of Michigan and was lucky enough to quickly find another leadership role which was (naturally) fully remote. About six months ago, she joined a new organisation after deciding to relocate to Georgia. It’s a large company headquartered in Texas but with a big office in Atlanta. 

Last week we had our monthly check-in. 

When I asked her how she was traveling, I have to admit she went on a bit of rant which began with something along the lines of, “I feel completely powerless. I’m conflicted and confused. Maybe this whole ‘matrix-style’ leadership thing isn’t for me. I don’t even know if I’m achieving anything. And I think I’m having a morale crisis”. 

She vented for quite a while and when she was done, I just let the silence sit for a while, as we both reflected on how she was feeling. 

Previously her leadership roles had all been in more traditional organisations. Even at the scale-up, she had been directly responsible for a small team, which had specific goals and operated within the confines of a clearly defined function. 

Her first exposure to cross-matrix leadership was becoming a whole new ball game. 

Inside a matrix organisation, in addition to their official line manager, employees from different functions or teams are led or guided by a project or activity leader who they typically don’t have a formal reporting line to. In other words, team members can have multiple ‘bosses’ – not just one. And this (as in Jordana’s case) can often cause great frustration for the project leader and / or the people leader. 

Building and managing a team is never easy. But when you’re trying to lead team members who are also taking direction and guidance from someone else entirely, or when you are responsible for a project, but its success depends on the performance of team members who don’t report to you and may push back on your requests, this can add an entirely new level of complexity (not to mention frustration) to the situation. 

Whilst there are many benefits to matrix-led organisations, such as diversity of skill sets and competencies, collaboration and co-operation, and dynamic thinking and innovation, there are also many disadvantages … for both employees and the leaders.

For the purposes of this particular article, we’ll be looking at the challenges that many leaders face and how, as a leader, you can best navigate these obstacles. 

Where team members report to (or are given direction by) multiple bosses, there can be accountability issues. 

Perhaps you can think about a scenario in your own organisation where perhaps a sales leader is instructing someone in the product team who has also been given other priorities by the head of product. Or where a marketing executive who has received a full task load from the marketing manager is given an urgent task by the head of client service. 

Much of the research into matrix-led businesses has revealed that dual reporting will lead to conflict and confusion, particularly when different leaders have different leadership styles.

Who has the official authority? Who should the team member ask to clarify any confusion? 

The ambiguity experienced by team members with multiple reporting lines will also often slow down the project delivery and final output given that the work may have to be signed off by different decision makers. 

The leaders in this field of research refer to role conflict occurring when team members face contradictory, competing or incompatible expectations from their ‘bosses’ while role ambiguity happens when the team member has unclear expectations around what work needs to be done, how it should be done, and whom to do it with. 

When the various leaders from across the business aren’t in sync, then they may not even be aware of the role conflict or role ambiguity their team members may be experiencing. 

What’s worse is that some leaders may not appreciate that the dual direction or instruction channels may also be overloading their team members to the point that they become burnt out and disengaged. 

So, as a leader, how can you ensure you are well prepared to effectively navigate across the matrix? 

Further research in this area states that whilst in a traditional organisational structure a leader can delegate a task and assume it will be done on time and on brief, within a matrix structure, you need to learn to lead without authority using empathy, self-regulation and self-awareness. 

These traits can all be linked directly to a theme we have written about in the past – emotional intelligence. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that leaders who are more comfortable (and typically more successful) working in a matrix style organisation have a high EQ. 

Remember:  

  • Empathy is about taking into consideration the feelings of others which also plays a huge role in developing others. It’s also about not simply understanding their needs, but respecting them, and the ability to listen deeply without casting judgment.  
  • Self-regulation is about being able to control or redirect impulses and disruptive emotions. 
  • Self-awareness is about knowing your emotions, strengths, weaknesses and values, and their impact on others.  

Of course, the other two key emotional intelligent traits also underpin a leader’s ability to carefully avoid the landmines that can often litter the field that is the matrix organisation. 

  • Social skills (when it comes to leadership) refers to the ability to manage relationships to move people in desired directions, to be able to impact and influence, and to be able to coordinate a disparate group of individuals into a team to achieve common goals. This trait is crucial when it comes to being part of a dual / multiple reporting structure and handling the role conflict and ambiguity referenced above. 
  • Motivation is all about taking pride in and feeling passionate about seeking new challenges and demonstrating optimism in the face of uncertainty. 

By tapping into their core emotional intelligence traits, leaders working across a matrix structure are more likely to find common ground and collaborative approaches to getting the most out of their (dual) ‘reports’. They will also gain a deeper understanding of their colleagues’ goals and objectives, not to mention their team members’ mindsets. 

Ultimately, transparent communication and collaboration between leaders and team members ‘in the matrix’ will lead to more successful project outcomes.  

Leaders sharing the management responsibilities across various projects need to constantly clarify their respective expectations and priorities while ensuring that their ‘reports’ feel comfortable asking questions and clarifying exactly what is being asked of them … and by whom. 

Leadership within a matrix organisation is all about creating a united front.

It doesn’t have to be confusing. It doesn’t have to be stressful. In fact, it can (and should) lead to a more engergised and engaged workplace. 

Remember, hellomonday can provide support to every leader, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, and ideally helping leaders navigate the challenges of leading across a matrix organisation. 

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