Caught between styles

Not much in the stuff about matrix organisations seems to cover what it feels like to be a subordinate to two or more managers with very different styles of management, each competing for an employee's work and time.

Jay Galbraith, for example, writing on the structure of matrix organisations talks about types of matrix structure: Two dimensions, like products and functions. This type is a solved problem. Three dimensions, like functions, business units, and countries. This type is far more challenging and encounters cultural differences. Four or more dimensions, which arise when serving global customers. This type is the cutting edge.

I was amused by the statement on the two dimensions 'this type is a solved problem' and then his view that 'organization structures do not fail, but management fails at implementing them correctly'. First, even two dimensional matrices are not a 'solved problem' – ask anyone who works in them. Second because it implies that if a matrix structure 'fails' (and I ask myself, by what criteria?) the entire management team comprises duff managers who can't make a matrix work.

Although some may say that the world actually is populated with duff managers I don't think that is the case. It's rather like saying 'teaching would be lovely if only there weren't students'. (A phrase I heard many times when I was a teacher). The management and managers are integral to the structure and there'll be some people who are better at working in and with the structure than others.

In fact, working within a matrix structure is somewhat like being in a school situation. Students are used to having multiple teachers (managers) and being accountable to them for different pieces of work. Strangely, in some government organisations I've worked in – even those without a matrix structure – the day-to-day language reinforces the notion that we're all learners in a school by talking about 'the exam question', or asking 'what is the homework? And even 'who is marking the homework?'

Remember some teachers you would work hard for – probably for a variety of carrot/stick reasons – and others who you would do the minimum for? In my case the reasons for this were much less to do with the intrinsic interest of the subject matter or my own capability and much more to do with the teacher's style, communication skills, ability to treat us as individuals and not a lumpen mass, etc. Some of these styles are clear in these delightfully different teaching situations here. Looking at these I wondered what teacher I would learn the most on the topic from and do best work for if I was in his/her classroom.

It's similar in a matrix management situation if you're the person with multiple managers. Some you can do great work with and others you can't. In a recent work example I was talking with some team leaders who'd been working with staff who'd come from a different site to their teams. After several weeks the team leaders received the performance reviews of their new team members. Several were stunned to find that the people they rated as top performers had been rated by their other manager(s) as bottom quadrant performers.

I won't go into the discussion about performance rankings and the impact on self-image and productivity but there's (another) good paper on it by Iwan Barankay from The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. If you're a subordinate to two managers it's not a done deal that you would get the same performance ranking from each (even if they were communicating with each other, which isn't always the case).

I got into this small investigation on management style in a matrix context when we were discussing whether to set up project teams or have single reporting lines in a more functional structure. Inevitably people brought their own experiences of matrix management to the table. Consistently the stories were not about being a manager among two or more of a subordinate but were about being the subordinate to the different styles of two or more managers. Questions arising from the stories included:

  • How do you work with someone who insists on micro-managing you while the other person is a 'let you get on with it type'?
  • How do you handle the manager who trusts you to work at home and the one who thinks you are shirking if you're not in the office?
  • How do you interpret the 'cascade' of the same meeting that both managers went to but bring back competing information from and/or present it from differing slants? (This one reminds me of a radio programme I once heard where the wife and husband were in different rooms talking about their wedding day to an interviewer. It was hilarious as the stories from each differed on a host of counts including location, weather, where the reception was, etc.)
  • How do you not become the buffer between two managers who manage you but who don't get on with each other?

And so on. As I said, the stories weren't about managing subordinates who had other managers. I found this intriguing and let me to wonder whether we should be doing better work on developing the skills and style for managing subordinates in a matrix. (Yes).

I also wondered whether well-established hierarchical organisations have the ability to effectively introduce matrix structures. I think this is hard and agree with the blogger who says that 'the skills required to effectively navigate the matrix are different than those needed to succeed in the old, hierarchical organizational model.' It's probably even more difficult when it is not a structure being introduced across the organisation but only in patches.

So what if you are in the situation of having two, or more, managers but are in an organisation where the styles and skills for matrix organization management are in short supply? I've come across a couple of useful pointers. One from Forbes 'How to work for more than one boss and stay sane' and the other an HBR blog post offering, among other tips, some do's and don'ts:


  • Be on the lookout for the most common challenges of having multiple bosses so you can proactively handle them
  • Keep a positive attitude and remember that the conflicts are most likely because of the situation, not because of you
  • Find out which of your bosses is responsible for making the decisions that affect your career


  • Try to speak on behalf of one boss to the other -— try to get them to talk with each other if possible
  • Keep your workload and task list a secret from any of your bosses
  • Push for transparency if your organization doesn't reward it

What are your experiences of management style in a matrix set-up? Let me know.

NOTE: I am giving up writing this blog at the end of the year. So have two pieces left – thoughts on what these should be about are welcome.