Challenges and Benefits of Matrix Management in the Workplace

A manager speaks with her employees

 Morsa Images / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Matrix management is commonly used in organizations to share resources, a.k.a. employees, across functions. In a matrix management system, an individual has a primary report-to boss while also working for one or more managers, typically on projects.

Why and Where Matrix Management Makes Sense

Matrix management is ideal for sharing talents and skills across departments. It's an especially handy system when developing new products – allowing individuals from all different functions to organize under a project manager to create something new and unique. This gives the team the ability to draw upon diverse skill sets from multiple disciplines, which strengthens the overall project team. 

It's a great way to cut costs too – matrix approaches to projects are typically less expensive than establishing dedicated project teams, and the diversity of the team members makes them superior to many purely functional teams. 

Where Matrix Management Is Not Ideal

While there are many potential benefits to this flexible style of team structure, there are some circumstances where it is not ideal. These include:

  • Longer-term projects: In this situation, a dedicated team structure with a permanent assignment may be optimal. 
  • Where one employee bears the heavy load: In situations where one employee's skills are mission-critical to a particular function, sharing this individual may materially or dangerously reduce the effectiveness of the function.

Varieties of Matrix Management Styles

Depending upon the power of the manager leading the cross-functional initiative there are three types: soft matrix, moderate matrix and hard matrix styles of teams. The hard matrix format is similar to a dedicated team, where the manager and team members have near autonomy over their initiative. A soft-form of matrix typically means that the initiative manager is dependent upon the various functional managers of the team participants for decision-making authority. A moderate form straddles these two.

Challenges with Matrix Management

While there are many benefits from a matrix management approach, there are challenges as well. A number of these include: 

  • The potential for participants to be conflicted between various managers and priorities. 
  • Communication confusion between and across initiatives and functions. 
  • Loss of clarity on who is responsible for performance evaluation
  • Loss of clarity on who is responsible for coaching and professional development.
  • Stress as participants are stretched across too many initiatives. 
  • Reduced effectiveness amongst teams that have been in place for a period. 
  • Loss of organizational or team learning and team memory because individuals are involved for just a short duration. 
  • The potential for individuals to be over-assigned to too many initiatives. It is sometimes difficult to gauge the capacity or workload of individuals in a matrix situation. 

Succeeding as an Employee in a Matrix Management Situation: 

Working in a matrix environment can be both rewarding and frustrating. Your exposure to different initiatives and colleagues supports learning and relationship development. However, it is important to an employee, working in a matrix, to understand your firm's approach to your evaluation and development.

  • Clarify who has the primary responsibility to evaluate you. 
  • Clarify how the input of your various matrix managers (often project managers) will be captured and reflected in your performance evaluation. 
  • Maintain a regular dialog with your report-to manager to keep him/her apprised of your progress and priorities. 
  • Identify conflicting priorities and broker discussions between the various managers to clarify any confusion.
  • Take the initiative to propose or encourage your report-to manager to invest in your professional development through training, education, and coaching. Gain the support of your matrix managers for these efforts. 

    There are pros and cons to every management structure and approach, and this holds true for matrix management. It is not ideal in every circumstance, and it can create stress for participants where the demands exceed the time, resources or the ability to juggle priorities. It can also offer access to specialized knowledge on a temporary basis. Finally, it can be more cost-effective than relying on dedicated teams. Succeeding with matrix management requires the active involvement of all parties.