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Surviving in the Matrix: How Leaders Can Build Relationships in Complex Org Structures

To thrive in an organization with a matrixed organizational structure—and blurred lines of hierarchy—executives need to focus on communication and trust.

A businessman standing in front of a network of people.

The vast majority of U.S. employees (84 percent) work in organizations with a "matrixed" work structure to some extent, meaning they work on multiple teams or report to multiple managers, according to a Gallup survey.

There are different levels of matrixed organizations. Some trend more toward a traditional hierarchy while implementing a few exceptions depending on the project. Others have a much flatter hierarchy, giving project managers a higher level of autonomy. Executives, especially HR executives, in complex or matrixed environments can have multiple responsibilities and reports that belong to different stakeholders or other executives.  

Wherever your organization falls on the matrix spectrum, leaders who are new to this structure may find it tough to navigate. They may have difficulty grasping a relationship structure in which there's no such thing as direct reports.

To thrive in matrixed organizations, communication and relationship-building skills are essential. Strong relationships promote efficiency in problem-solving and knowledge-sharing. Additionally, your ability to build relationships with others will influence your career trajectory.

Matrixed organizations can offer some perplexing scenarios due to blurred hierarchy lines. Renowned business consultant Ken Blanchard said matrixed organizations can trigger questions such as: How do you achieve results when you don't have final decision-making authority? What do people do when one leader's priority conflicts with another's? How do you help others work effectively outside their immediate work group? In each of these cases, excellent interpersonal and communication skills can help defuse tense situations and strengthen growth.

Six Ways to Build Trust-Based Connections

For executives in matrixed organizations, here are the best ways to cultivate professional relationships built on trust:

1. Be open and willing to learn from others.

Within matrixed organizations, you'll find plenty of subject matter experts and specialists. In fact, one undeniable benefit of incorporating a matrixed structure is that it favors a variety of skill sets among team members. However, this can sometimes translate into people with specific skill sets grouping together to perform work that speaks to their expertise. Stepping out of your comfort zone to engage in conversations with others who have different skill sets can help you understand how their work complements yours and allows you to leverage their abilities better in future projects.

Being open also means being transparent. Transparency is a key part of building trust among team members, and it facilitates the sharing of information. Secrecy fuels unhealthy competition; transparency helps strengthen ties and creates a sense of unity.  

Additionally, having an open attitude drives collaboration. By being the person who wants to learn and open up conversations on topics that are new to you, you will not only enhance your own learning and ability to contribute meaningfully to projects, but you'll also foster an environment of collaborative effort.

Finally, being open and communicative helps prevent information bottlenecks and "stove-piping." Matrixed organizations are prone to siloing; therefore, the more available you are to learn and share, the better that information will flow. And if information is flowing better, you will have more continuity and alignment among your team.

2. Be willing to ask fearless questions.

The most successful people in business got where they are by overcoming fear: fear of challenging the status quo, fear of failure, fear of stepping on toes.

Within a matrixed structure that has relational ambiguity, being the fearless one who asks the tough questions establishes an important trait for success: the ability to influence others. The fearless one is often saying what everyone is thinking but too afraid to express.

Fearless questions also drive a culture of curious leadership, pushing initiatives and problem-solving to achieve better results. Instead of accepting the status quo, bold leaders who suggest a rethink of direction are the ones who allow companies to experience breakthroughs and growth.

3. Use technology to help communicate.

The means of communication matter. Knowing how to use the right methods of communication can economize precious time, facilitate the flow of information across the team and prevent important messages from getting lost.

Rather than relying on meetings, use quick, direct and efficient means to communicate. Too many meetings drain time and energy, and they can be a source of stress for managers and team members. In fact, a Harvard Business Review study found that 71 percent of senior managers said meetings are unproductive and inefficient. Abolishing meetings altogether is probably unrealistic, and meetings can be powerful communication tools, but only when they're not overdone. Use them sparingly.

Instead of holding a meeting to move projects forward, try communicating quickly over Slack instant message groups and using file-sharing to co-create and pose questions.

4. Empower others.

Fostering the professional growth and improvement of others helps build strong relationships. Executives in matrixed organizations should delegate responsibilities to the most appropriate person to tackle them, thereby ensuring the right work goes to the right business level. This not only will enhance the success of the project you're working on, but it also will make others feel valued for their expertise, facilitating innovative thinking and keeping work moving forward.

5. Seek the big picture.

Knowing your organization's broader strategy and business goals helps you focus your work so it aligns better with these goals. This switch from task-oriented work to purpose-oriented work allows you to keep your eye on the big picture. When this happens, decision-making becomes easier and more effective.

As executive coach George Bradt shares in Forbes, "When people's bias is to protect 'their' teams and 'their' turf, matrices fail. They work only when people work together to achieve common goals."

Bradt uses Amazon as the ultimate example of a successful matrixed organization. Despite not producing anything, Amazon is the dominant retail business because each person's job is structured to uphold the company's mission: to be the world's most customer-centric company. That's the potential a matrixed organization has when central goals are prioritized.

6. Develop positive relationships vertically and horizontally across divisions and business lines.

Today's top business schools look for traits that ensure success in a matrixed organization, such as empathy, emotional intelligence, inclusion and humility. For example, people who are recommending applicants to the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University are asked to cite an example of a time when the candidate fostered an environment of inclusiveness. New York University's Stern School of Business wants to know the emotional intelligence of its MBA candidates.

These traits signify an ability to work collaboratively and respectfully with others, to encourage diversity, and to make positive contributions to teams and organizations. To succeed in a matrixed work culture, executives should:

    • Communicate honestly, clearly, accurately and supportively.
    • Understand the interests, motivations, and top priorities of the individuals and teams they serve.
    • Be empathic in their interactions.
    • Be humble and genuinely inquisitive.
    • Spend more time asking questions and listening thoughtfully than talking.


Ben Frasier has held executive-level positions in human resources and is the former VP of HR at the Billings Clinic. Ben has earned the SHRM-SCP credential and has deep experience with HR information systems, employee relations, talent acquisition, HR business partners, benefits and compensation. 


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