The difference between more and less effective matrix organizations flows from their leaders’ attitudes. When the people in a matrix focus more on decision rights and control, they spend their time on turf battles. When they focus more on working together to realize a shared purpose, they spend their time collaborating, influencing and succeeding together.
Certainly clarity of accountabilities and responsibilities is one of the hallmarks of an effective organization. But that’s just the starting point. Effective leaders build on that with an understanding of the difference between leading and managing and an understanding of the different levels of engagement. (In brief, leaders influence while managers direct; and there are three levels of engagement: compliance, contribution and commitment to the cause.)
Effective leaders use different tools in different situations. In particular, they know when to work towards consensus and when to end the debate and make decisions. So:
Seek input from others who know more about things than you do. Their knowledge may be general or specific, just so long as they have a different perspective you value. This is one of the most important distinctions between confident and less confident leaders. Less confident leaders view seeking input as a sign of weakness. More confident leaders welcome any help they can get from anyone or anyplace that in anyway helps them and their team realize their shared purpose.
Provide input to others. Happiness is good. Actually, three goods: doing good for others, things you are good at and good for yourself. If the idea fits one of these criteria, it is, in fact, good for the people you are trying to influence. So influence others to make changes that are good for them, leverage their strengths or further a cause they believe in. One of your jobs is to help the people following you understand how important ideas are good for them.
Sometimes people need to do things that are not, in fact, good for them. In these cases, don’t try to influence them. Don’t try to get them to commit to the cause. Give them clear direction and accept a lower level of engagement like contribution or compliance.
Make decisions when needed. Note that this is not about telling people what to do. Effective leaders get broad input and involve others in discussions leading up to major decisions. If the group reaches consensus, great. But if the group is unable to decide, step up, make the decision and provide the needed direction. Even if they disagree with your final choice, when people believe the direction is in their or the cause’s best interest, they will support the decision and be eager to move forward.
Follow others’ decisions when their knowledge and experience, independent of their rank or formal status, makes them better qualified than you are to make a decision. Then follow well, throwing your full support, energy and influence behind others’ decisions as you would have others do with your decisions.
Effective Matrix Leadership
The nature of a matrix is that different leaders have to play different roles at different times, collaborating, making decisions and providing direction, or following others’ direction as appropriate. Less effective leaders invest more of their own time and energy to their own designated areas of accountability and less time and energy to other areas. Effective leaders move easily back and forth between influencing and directing, devoting their time and energy to helping move the organization forward whichever role they are playing at any given moment.
Thus, as a leader in a matrix organization:
• Lead with purpose, focusing your own and others’ efforts on the overall shared mission, vision, objectives and goals in line with your strategies and values.
• Have a bias to seeking and providing input. Collaborate to leverage others’ strengths and build relationships over time.
• But don’t let collaboration get in the way of progress. Know when to break the impasse either by making the decision or following someone else’s direction.