Ask Lin: How to Excel in a Matrix Organization

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Q: I work in a company where I have two bosses: my solid line manager is based in China and my dotted line manager is based in the US. Sometimes I find myself been pulled into different directions and I don’t know when I am supposed to copy them on emails, and my US manger is now complaining that I’m over communicating. What should I do?  

A: First of all, if you find yourself in a matrix role where you have multiple bosses to communicate with, congratulations! That means your managers trust you are mature enough to manage the multiple demands and other complications that come with matrix organizations.

The solid line and dotted line relationship are not always clearly defined such that you know exactly who to turn to for what. Sometimes, these multiple reporting relationships create confusing expectations, and that can be frustrating, especially when your two bosses don't give clear guidance on what they want. Proactive communication is therefore extremely important.

Communication all boils down to a fundamental concept: Do you know what they want? Invest time into understanding your bosses and their needs. There is a reason why you have two bosses – they have different roles and responsibilities in the organization, and therefore need different things from you. Investigate the following questions deeply, knowing the answer will be different for each of your bosses:

  • What value do they bring to the organization?
  • What are their goals and KPI?
  • What value do you bring to them?
  • Who decides your pay/performance review?
  • Who takes the lead in helping you develop?
  • What resources do they provide for your work?
  • Who can you turn to when something goes wrong?

Once you answer these questions, you will have a clearer idea of how to provide the information which matters to them. To avoid over-communicating, which makes you appear too dependent, or the equally damning under-communicating, which deprives your bosses of the information they need, remember that email isn't always the best communication tool. In conversation, you can peel off layers of information like an onion, providing only as many details as needed.

A well-functioning matrix organization requires a lot of effort from the management as well as the employees. As long as you’re in a global company, you're pretty much stuck with this type of structure. The good news is that such organization structure can provide opportunities for those who know how to shine. So be a matrix winner, not a matrix whiner!

Lin Gao, an AmCham China Vice Chairman, is a certified leadership coach, trainer and writer with 20 years of management experience in both China and the US. To submit a question for her, contact editor@amchamchina.org.