Life in matrix: How to deal with multiple reporting managers


Working in a matrix structure, with several reporting managers increases exposure to different domains and offers immense learning opportunities. At the same time, it might also be one of the reasons for pulling down a professional career, unless extra caution is exercised.

With changing times, the structuring of organisations has come a long way. Various forms of structural hierarchy have been put to use —line, divisional, project organisational and matrix structures. Today, irrespective of the size or age of the organisation, matrix structure is the norm. The working style in the matrix structure is designed to achieve specific results by using teams of specialists from different functional areas.

As companies try to make the best use of resources, employing temporary teams to complete varied tasks, employees often find themselves in a multiple reporting environment.

Working in a matrix structure, with several reporting managers increases exposure to different domains and offers immense learning opportunities. At the same time, it might also be one of the reasons for pulling down a professional career, unless extra caution is exercised. Let us take a quick look at the common challenges, which employees facing multiple reporting have to overcome.

1. Work overload

It’s quite common for a person with more than one reporting manager to be saddled with too much work. This is because each manager allocates work without paying heed to the volume of work already on the reportee’s plate.

2. Prioritizing of tasks
Employees often find themselves in a dilemma, as each manager gives a task which is most urgent and requires immediate submission.

3. Conflict of loyalty
There is friendly competition and then there is childish undercutting. If one of the managers feels that the other is a rival, he will be suspicious of where the reportee’s loyalty lies. Each manager will seek proof of being on top of the reportee’s list of priorities, in terms of the reportee’s actions and words.

It becomes very tough for the employee to decide whom to say ‘yes’ to and whom to decline. “I am tired of trying to keep both of them happy”, is a common statement heard from employees in such situations. While it may not be possible for one to face all the challenges encountered at work, being aware of and acknowledging them is the first step towards addressing them.

Here are several steps to mitigate these challenges and make life easier at the workplace.

1. Recognise different personalities
There is a very high chance that each of the people one works with, will have a different working style and preferences. It is important to understand that one size cannot fit all. For instance, one manager would want a frequent update about the progress on an assigned task. The second manager will be fine if the work assigned is completed by the given deadline without regular updates. By understanding these personality differences and taking small steps to adapt one’s style of working according to the differing personalities of the managers, one can create a favourable impression. Once the preferred method of doing work is understood and mastered, one can be sure that the first right chord has been struck.

2. Know who your ‘ultimate’ boss is
On paper, one might be reporting to multiple managers or reporting directly to one, with dotted reporting to others, while the ground reality may be different. In any situation, the primary focus has to be to get to know who the real boss is. There will be one out of the many who will handle one’s evaluation end to end taking inputs from others. There will be the one who will influence role change or compensation increment. Even in a heavily matrixed environment, there is typically one manager who takes care of an individual entirely.

Ensure that there is regular connect and one-on-one sessions to discuss work and career. One has to make sure to rely on their leadership guidance while dealing with other managers.

If there are two reporting managers in every sense, one has to ensure that the goals are set in discussion with both the managers. Awareness of the weightages of evaluation is a must. At the time of appraisal, one has to first have separate evaluation discussions followed by a combined overall discussion. This will ensure that no one manager plays a blame game.

3. Be vocal about work and have common communication forums
Managers will not know how full one’s plate is unless one tells them. They always like proactive employees. One has to formalise a method of communicating wherein all managers are aware of one’s work schedule. It could be a shared document which shows the progress of all listed tasks or a weekly check -in meeting. Transparency is the game here. The idea is to keep everyone updated about one’s work and prevent any wrong perceptions.

4. Define boundaries
Imagine performing a task assigned by a particular manager, and being constantly interrupted by various other managers wanting to assign more tasks or seek clarifications, etc. Such interruptions hamper productivity. Therefore, it is a must to formalise a process along the following lines:

  • Preferred/acceptable mode of assigning work – en email, message or face-to-face interaction
  • Frequency — daily, twice/thrice a week
  • Time of the day —first half or second
  • Preferred mode of updating status on tasks

If possible, one way should be negotiated that will suit all managers. This gives one a clear idea of when to expect more work and when to focus on assigned tasks without interruptions. Everyone has to be flexible. This lets one establish a way for the majority of one’s time and also ease one’s efforts in managing different expectations.

5. Enhance communication between managers
Suggest a plan for a weekly connect with all managers together in one forum. Put an agenda in place to discuss the work assigned, set priorities, etc. Adopt a process wherein managers meet each other regularly. It can be over a call or a quick coffee catch up or a formal meeting room discussion. Free-flowing communication is in one’s best interest.

6. Be wary of unknowingly choosing sides
Be cautious of choosing sides or speaking on behalf of one manager in front of the other. In open forums or meetings, refrain from praising one manager. Not praising is directly correlated to absence of loyalty.

In the face of conflicting information or instructions, let the managers discuss and settle matters. Get them to a common forum and take a step back. Let them revert with a conclusion. Confirm the agreed decision with everyone and then begin to work.

(The author is business partner – HR, Infosys.)