The challenges for managers in matrix-structured organizations

Leslie Tedgui – 20 November 2019 – Reading Time : 3 minutes


The benefits of adopting matrix-type organizational structures are numerous: companies become more proactive, flexible, autonomous and productive. And yet for managers in such organizations, life can get complicated. Matrix organizations can be vectors of stress and tensions which in turn create challenging situations for managers, and have a disruptive effect on employees. In this context, how can managers regain control?

What are matrix organizations?

Right from their first appearance in the 1950’s, matrix organizations were intended to break down the walls between services. The idea was to decentralize decision-making in companies to draw optimum benefit from all their human resources, with the ultimate aim of enhancing corporate performance. This was based on the hypothesis that actors in the field are the in the best position to judge a situation and to take the necessary decisions in the interests of the company, without having to wait for the green light from their boss.

Matrix organizations function along the basis of a dual hierarchy system composed of operational responsibilities on one axis and functional responsibilities on the other. They are in total contrast with traditional models of corporate governance which function with a single, hierarchical pyramid.

With the advent of globalization in the 90’s, many international firms adopted matrix structures, seeing in them a means to ramp up their capacity to adapt quickly to changing environments. The model proved to be particularly suitable for structures operating in project mode, as it enabled them to compose and reshuffle multidisciplinary teams according to the projects of the moment.  

Matrix organizations or “the Sound of Music”

Matrix structures enable companies to handpick a variety of competencies from already existing teams, in order to create new work groups tasked with specific objectives. They are still very much in vogue today because of how easily skills can be transferred.

Employees share their knowledge, experience and best practices far more readily. Together, they find new, more pertinent solutions adapted to their operations, and therefore become more efficient, proactive, coherent and effective. Furthermore, by encouraging the creativity and initiative of employees, matrix organizations stimulate innovation at the heart of the company.

How matrix structures can lead to a loss of bearings for managers and their teams

Even though it may be considered as ideal at first sight, the matrix organizational model does receive a certain amount of negative criticism. One of the factors which crystallizes tensions is none other than the very feature which contributes to the model’s success: its dual hierarchy. Employees do not answer to just one manager, they have several. This inevitably causes problems, especially if nothing has been done to rethink the company’s modes of management.

In practice, transversal communication is not an easy task. If it is nonexistent or poorly constructed, it can give rise to misunderstanding, conflicts, stress, and can adversely effect employee well-being at work. In this case, instead of facilitating initiative and decision-making, a matrix organization will tend to throw spanners in the works!

It is not rare to find that managers who are unable to come to an agreement tend to obstruct processes. Since these managers supervise the same subordinates, there is a tendency for counter-orders to multiply, creating misunderstanding. The confused employees do not know which way to turn. The risks are a loss of meaning for the employees, and a subsequent decline in their motivation and commitment.

Communication is the manager’s key asset

Managers face a triple challenge. They are expected to:

  • supervise and manage their team members while gaining their commitment to a common transversal project
  • give directions to employees over whom they have no hierarchical authority
  • and work together with their peers, which implies reaching a common agreement on the way forward

No matter how motivated they may be, without support, managers are doomed to failure. It is therefore crucial to assist them in learning and mastering the keys to help them succeed in their mission.

Training and coaching are proven solutions, enabling to:

  • deepen a person’s knowledge about non-violent communication (in order to recognize the warning signs of conflict and defuse such conflicts in the bud)
  • enhance empathy and listening skills
  • develop proactive language which will trigger the enthusiasm of colleagues

To meet their challenges, managers have no other choice than to learn how to organize themselves and manage their priorities. Delegation becomes second nature. If managers fail to delegate, they run the risk of sinking under their work load; if they insist on attending every single project meeting in person, they may lose precious time.

When working with their counterparts, managers must contribute to the discussions but must also be capable of asserting themselves and taking the lead in the company’s interests.

Matrix organization is a corporate model that has proven its worth in terms of efficiency and productivity. However, the model alone is not sufficient to ensure success. The associated management styles are just as important!

Leslie Tedgui