How to Thrive in a Matrix, not just Survive

You used to have one boss and now you have two. You’re wondering how this is going to work – for you and for your bosses, as well as your teammates. You have lots of teammates because you’re on multiple teams now. You’ve been told this new structure is called a matrix, and you are being asked to learn how to make it work.

Linking entities. Network, networking, social media, internet coSince this reorganization was announced, your new title is the Eastern Region Finance Manager. You report to the Eastern Market General Manager AND to the U.S. Finance Director. This means you are part of the Eastern Market team, as well as the U.S. Finance team. So you have operational goals and objectives, as well as functional goals and objectives.

How do you make everyone happy above you and lead your own team in the process?

Learning how to not only survive in a matrix organizational structure but to get to where you can thrive takes specific skills and abilities for each individual. According to research from Hay Group, the competencies required to be most effective in this environment are: empathy, conflict management, influence and self-awareness.

In her Harvard Business Review article, Ruth Malloy writes “Influence and conflict management capabilities help leaders to build consensus around a common purpose and deliver the collaborative solutions that the matrix requires. Empathy, on the other hand, enables leaders to develop a better understanding of their counterparts’ perspectives and their customers’ mindset. Self-awareness allows leaders to summon the patience to manage the complexities of the matrix.”

In addition to these competencies, your leadership style may require an overhaul. If you have spent your career working in a traditional hierarchy, the matrix environment will feel like a dramatic adjustment. The matrix does not operate top-down. It is much more complex, collaborative and nuanced. You learn who to CC on emails and when. You learn which meetings are essential and which are not.

Leaders become coaches instead of bosses.

You have to trust and empower your team members. Provide them guidance and boundaries. Give them room to experiment and grow. Support them when they fail so they learn from it. Help them build new and different skills.

You must spend more time collaborating with your own peers as well. Chances are good you will have more opportunity to do this because you are in frequent cross-functional meetings with them, working to achieve those operational goals and objectives.

None of these steps is easy. They all take time. The more you work at them, you will reap the benefits of the multi-dimensional worldview you bring to the table in all of those meetings. You will get to where you can represent both the Eastern Market AND the U.S. Finance organization confidently. By then it just might be time for another reorganization…

Betsy Winkler is a Partner at PeopleResults who has worked in a matrix for 20+ years. She can be reached on Twitter @BetsyWinkler1 or on email at Sign up to receive her and her colleagues’ blog at Current.