Making Sense of the Matrix


When we point to a common workplace frustration we are probably pointing to a behaviour explained by human instincts. In organisations that have a matrix reporting structure, people generally experience frustration with the system. Human instincts helps to explain the issue and to identify solutions.

In case you are not familiar with matrix reporting (and you’re fortunate if you don’t operate within this structure) it means that a person reports to two bosses, where one boss is probably the business unit boss and the other boss is perhaps the location manager. Usually, the business unit boss is based in a different location to their direct reports. The structure expects people to be part of two teams and to attend to the requirements of both bosses. In being critical of matrix structures, I don’t include in the definition of matrix a “client reporting” line, such as when a HR professional reports to a HR boss and also supports a business unit leader as one of their clients. That’s not a matrix as the line of reporting is clear (the person has a single boss (in HR) and they also have a client or two).  

The matrix structure with a person reporting to two bosses is unnatural for humans. Being a hierarchical species where a dominance order is the norm, our natural pattern is that we screen for a single line of reporting based on power. Expecting people to report to two bosses is unrealistic. The real line of power is the boss who has the control of resources (budgets and headcount). People work it out incredibly quickly.

People work it out quickly  

At one point in my career as a HR Director the organisation I was with at the time implemented a matrix structure. I observed how quickly people worked out who their real boss was and the practical (power) implications from their detection. We’d changed from reporting on a location basis to reporting to business units with a dual line to a location manager. Overnight, a location manager who was the formal boss on one day had trouble the next day getting people to a location team meeting – the lower-level managers regarded him now as their location boss and not their real boss (the business unit manager). And this wasn’t a case that the leader was a tyrant who people were happy to move away from. He was a “good guy”. It was simply a case of formal versus indirect power.  
So why did we invent matrix reporting? 

Matrix management as a design option gathered pace about 15-20 years ago as a solution to the complexity of operating large, global organisations. The problem is that large, dispersed organisations are always going to be complex. The complexity is multi-faceted of course, but at a species level the main complexity is that the natural condition for humans, driven by the size of our brain, is to relate to and be closely connected in groups of up to about 150 people. Through the long journey of history we’ve spent most of our time in clan groups of about that size. Suddenly in the last 100 years or so we find ourselves in organisations significantly larger than that – in some cases 1,000 times or more larger. Such organisations will be complex, no matter what the structure. The matrix won’t be a magic solution. The design question fundamentally is to make the operations of the organisation as simple as possible (or the other side of that coin, at least no more complex than it need be) and to hold people accountable for clear chunks of work and outcomes.  

Matrix is unnatural  

  1. Given our characteristics as a species, there are number of unnatural dimensions of matrix structures for humans:
    Being a hierarchical species we are sensitive about dominance displays. With matrix structures we set in place a potential power-dominance contest between two leaders who are competing for focus, influence and power. 
  2. We have a need to belong, and the basic level of belonging is to a “family” unit of about 7 people – an intimate group. With remote reporting, it’s a huge challenge to try to build a sense of belonging in a dispersed team and with a leader in another location. 
  3. With leaders and staff in different locations, it’s problematic for the manager to offer support for their team, to know the barriers that need to be removed to help people in their work, to notice and hence respond appreciative when things go well, or on the rare occasions of poor performance to address the issue in a timely fashion. 
  4. Being a primate, we are a face-reading species and our natural state is to be physically connected with people. So expecting people to be close to someone in another location, let alone in another culture in another country, is optimistic – and certainly needs a lot of work.  

Implications and tips

So given the challenge of the matrix for humans, what’s the best we can do? 

First we would avoid implementing a matrix structure if we can (don’t just implement a matrix because others have done so and it appears to be the fashion). 

  1. If the reality is that you are in a matrix structure, how can you make it work?
    Don’t expect too much from the matrix – don’t expect the matrix to be a magic solution to the level of complexity in your organisation.
  2. Being realistic means not expecting romantic adherence to the dual-reporting lines. For example, with performance reviews people will really want to have the review and hear the opinion of their “direct” boss and be much less interested in the view of the indirect boss, even to the point of not really wanting them involved.  
  3. Be conscious that the primary relationship with the employee will be with the manager who is their “real boss” (the person who has control over resources). 
  4. If you have people reporting to you who are based in another location, spend time together both in person and on the phone.
  5. If you are a “dotted-line manager”, be conscious that you don’t have formal power and you will be mainly using influencing skills to persuade people to do tasks. 
  6. If you are involved in appointing leaders, take care not to appoint people to dotted-line positions who will be frustrated with that lack of formal power (at least when I was in the HR director role I referred to above, and knowing about instincts, we appointed people to dotted-line roles who had the right style and who would be okay operating mainly through influence).  

At a personal level, if you are working in a matrix environment and are finding it frustrating, then hopefully this newsletter has diminished your frustration by explaining the issue, and will also help you reflect on the need to attend to the requirements of both your leaders – to move beyond frustration to acceptance and to action.  

Andrew O'Keeffe


Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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