Direct or Dotted?  Managing Successfully in a Matrix Organization | PSA Leadership Committee

December 26, 2019


By Jim DeStefano, PSA Leadership Committee

In many of today’s organizations, managers and employees work in a matrix reporting structure and have departed from the old structure where there was one boss.

The reason for this organizational switch is to ensure employees are being supported in every aspect of their role.  Generally, in a typical management arrangement, there are either not enough resources available on the management level to handle all the employees, or a manager may not have enough knowledge with specific aspects of an employee’s job. The matrix organizational structure allows another manager with more direct knowledge to be used as a supplement to the direct manager.

For example, I took on a division that is very technical, and as such, the overall division that reports to me has certain requirements that are better suited to another manager to help oversee.   As a result, the manager of the division reports directly to me but has an indirect dotted line reporting relationship to the Chief Technical Officer who can lend advice and guidance on extremely technical aspects of the position.

For this relationship to work, communication is key.  Both managers, direct and indirect, must constantly be in sync when dealing with the division manager.   Both need to ensure that mixed signals aren’t being sent, while also making sure the employee knows who to go to for issues.

In this instance, the matrix organization system works very well.  Regular communication among all of us keeps things moving smoothly and avoids conflicts that could occur.

Goals are set by the direct manager with the indirect, or dotted line manager, giving input and suggestions prior to putting the goals before the employee. This sets the performance expectations and ensures the employee knows how they are being evaluated. This same method is used when giving feedback during review periods. The direct manager works with the indirect manager to provide feedback to the employee.

I have seen the direct/dotted line relationship fail miserably on several occasions.  In most of these failures, this was, in part, due to a lack of communication and a lack of clarity from the managers to the employee as well as misunderstanding from the employee because of mixed signals.  Inconsistent messaging and goal-setting led to confusion on performance evaluations and misunderstanding of expectations. In several cases, this led to a good employee leaving the company.

Matrix leadership can provide a lot of benefits to the managers, employees, and the company but like all relationships, there is a bit of work to keep it strong. The key to any matrix organization is good, clear-cut communications.