One Manager is Probably Enough. Two is Likely More than Enough.

I thought “matrix management” had been ditched long ago, but I recently heard about one manager in a large organization – I’ll call her Marie – with a staff member who is “multi-managed”, i.e., working for two bosses. I guess matrix management is not dead!

A matrix organizational structure does give some employees two or more managers. One manager directs an employee’s primary “functional” duties as defined by their department’s specialty area and responsibilities. The second oversees a more specific project that may be part of the employee’s department while also linking to other groups or sub-units.

So, since Marie is a friend, I looked for information on the problems that may be created by this model of work structure in hope that she would be able to communicate them up the ladder, maybe getting some help in reducing the difficulties this multi-management situation is creating for her now over-stressed staff member.

Managers jockey for power in many organizations, but a matrix design often encourages competition rather than cooperation. Conflicting interests can also lead to confusion about policies and procedures, just as infighting can lead to inefficiencies for both individual workers and business processes. In a “politicized environment”, line managers sometimes say problems that arise are the fault of other departments, or, as one manager told me, “Blame the culture – when something goes wrong, point to the other guys.”

There are four major types of problems reported by multi-managed employees. Marie is probably dealing with more than one of these:

  1. Time Constraints: When an employee reports into two different sub-organizations, s/he has to consult with twice the number of interested parties. Decision-making takes longer. Inadequate time may prevent the right people from contributing to a problem’s solution. The multi-managed employee is likely to experience overload: with more than one person assigning work, one of the greatest risks is simply having too much to do.
  2. Conflicting Messages: The more bosses you have, the more conflicting messages you get. Different bosses have different expectations: an employee may not only need to participate in multiple staff meetings, but also receive requests to attend other events for other purposes. Information conveyed by the “functional manager” may differ from – or even contradict – that conveyed by a second boss, leading to confusion, delay or procrastination whenever directives are not clear or associated with specific objectives.
  3. Individual Goals Mess: A multi-managed employee has one or more goals or job descriptions as defined by each manager. With two different managers, individual workers may not be able to align with the team goals of either one, nor see their role in an effective context for working and interacting with others. There is often no clear line of command, authority or responsibility in the boss-subordinate relationships, and worker dissatisfaction and employee turnover may result.
  4. Psychological Stress – Multi-managed work roles and relationships often lack stability or continuity. Some employees report experiencing a state of constant change and confusion, unclear about which “boss” they should feel most responsible to work with. Some managers want to be sure that they are the first priority, so it’s easy to get caught in the middle. An employee may be expected to keep secrets, or even deceive others about what they are doing or their knowledge of objectives, operations or problems. Conflicting interests between managers can make life difficult for the multi-managed employee.

I’m wishing the best for Marie, and also for her multi-managed staff member. Any employee with two managers can expect some of the time constraints, conflicting messages, goals-mess and/or psychological stresses. But how to deal with it?

The only answer I have seen work well is to first identify which elements of those four types of issues causes the most distress. Then choose someone to speak with – someone who could do something about the situation, and whom you are confident will support and assist you. “Talk straight”, without drama, to that person about the costs to the employee, to others and to overall performance. Finally, work with that person (and others as available and appropriate) to create a path that allows for less stress and more clarity, integrity and effectiveness for all.

I’m sure you can iron out those wrinkles!

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