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Jamie Lawrence


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Conflict in the matrix – the challenges of moving away from hierarchical structures


Kevan Hall is CEO of Global Integration, consultants and trainers in matrix management, virtual teams and global working. He is also the author of "Making the Matrix Work."

Many international organisations are moving away from a hierarchical structure to a matrix organisation, designed to improve work and processes that cut across the traditional vertical silos of function and geography. Even those without a formal matrix structure are using virtual teams and cross functional working to become more “horizontally” connected.

Organisations need to be connected in this way to serve global customers, run supply chains that span the world and operate more integrated business processes and internal functions like HR and IT. Globalisation has led to the need and information technology has enabled it to happen.

However, this more complex way of working, can easily lead to increased conflict:

  • multiple reporting lines (whether solid line or dotted line) and overlapping accountabilities mean there are often different goals that compete for our time and attention
  • even people with just one boss may be working on multiple teams with different demands on their time
  • resources are limited and shared more widely across the organisation – resource allocation is one of the most heated issues in many companies
  • prioritisation is a challenge in a single line reporting organisation, in a matrix it is more complex and subject to faster change
  • teams will include more diverse groups of colleagues from different functions and cultures. The different world-views that these people bring create more opportunities for misunderstanding and different values and perspectives
  • communication through technology introduces additional opportunities for misunderstanding and dispute that can be more easily spotted and resolved face-to-face.

So there are some additional factors that can cause an increase in conflict in this matrix and virtual way of working, but is conflict always bad?

Conflict can be a sign of passion, of people with strongly held genuinely different opinions about the best thing for the business. An organisation with no conflict may well be filled with people who don’t really care. However, conflict is only healthy, when it is resolved; unresolved conflict will just re-occur. The only way that this type of conflict will be resolved is through the skills of the people involved.

Our matrix management training uses a simple conflict management sequence to help leaders identify and cope with conflict. There are four stages:

1. Recognise and flag the problem –this can be a challenge in distributed organisations, how do you know that your colleague on a conference call is irritated? How can you tell the different signs of conflict in colleagues from other cultures?

We need to create mechanisms to identify and be more explicit about conflict and we also need the confidence to "flag" the issue. Many inexperienced leaders try to suppress conflict as they consider it risky, but unfortunately, if it isn’t recognised, it can never be resolved.

2. Understand the differences – we need to create an opportunity, ideally face-to-face, to really understand how people differ and what drives them in the way they think. Leaders need the skills to facilitate these sessions and keep them focused on facts rather than emotions.

3. Create shared purpose – if all we do is "storm" issues and make them explicit then this might make us feel better short term, but it doesn’t resolve the underlying problem. We need to give the time, immediately after we understand the differences, to find areas where we share a common purpose or already have some level of agreement. Without this fixed point of agreement (and there is nearly always something), we can’t start to build new norms and new ways of working for the future.

4. Build and deliver agreement – the output of a conflict management session should be a clear written agreement of how the parties involved will work together in the future to prevent the conflict from re-occurring. The leader should look for tangible opportunities to review whether these agreements are being delivered.

If leaders don’t feel they have the skills or confidence to drive this process, then they should use a HR advisor or specialist to support this. This should only be necessary for serious and ingrained conflict.

Most conflict starts out between two individuals, but it can grow to infect a team, or even a whole organisation, if it does not get resolved. It is best to nip the conflict in the bud and deal with it at an early stage before emotions get in the way and people get into entrenched positions.

If you see conflict in your team or organisation, make sure that you have identified it and make it explicit to the leaders involved. Ensure there is a process in place for resolving it because sweeping it under the carpet is not a successful strategy.

If you want the leaders in your organisation to have the confidence and skills to deal with conflict successfully make sure they have adequate training in the techniques required for successful conflict management. It is an area of leadership that feels risky and without a framework and methodology leaders may be unwilling to address the conflict that is getting in the way of their success.

3 Responses

  1. Matrix revisited

     Appreciate that Kevan and thanks for illuminating that.

    On re-reading and reflecting, I held off the blog so I think you've squared the circle for me here.  Appreciate that.  The blog will get a delete and rightly so.  You're right in what you say – there is conflict.  What their is in a lot of line relationships of now is not conflict just "friction loss"; inertia and "can't be bothered".  I prefer to see some productive discussions surface out of a conflict through decision making or similar on matrix situations as people seem more inclined to raise them.

    That was my reflection anyway so I don't even view the article with as much negativity as when I first read it.

    How the mind works eh?

    Thanks again for responding and flushing out the issues in the first place.

    Vive la Matrix revolution!


  2. Conflict in the matrix

    Hi Perry

    Thanks for your comment. I am actually an advocate of the matrix, I’ve worked with over 200 companies on making their matrix successful and, for our complex global clients, its the structure of choice.

    In my book "Making the matrix work" you will see that I support the matrix as having great business benefits and the potential to create higher levels of autonomy, engagement and satisfaction – provided people develop the mindset and skillset to succeed in this more complex way of working.

    Despite this we have found that the matrix does create more opportunities for conflict and that many people don’t have the skills to resolve this conflict successfully. If conflict is not resolved it can seriously impede the operation of any organization but there are some particular additional risks from the matrix as I outlined above.

    The motivation of the piece is to give people a simple process for resolving conflict early and going on to enjoy the benefits of matrix working, not to paint it as a dark and dangerous place.


    Kevan Hall CEO specialist in matrix management, virtual teams, global working author of "Making the Matrix Work" and "Speed Lead" books.

  3. Worries about the negative perception of matrix working

     Kevan, I respect that you have expertise, hours, experience and gravitas in this world but I have to say this disappointed me a lot. Having been in matrix work situations myself for approaching 20 years I have a contrary view for all your bullet points here.  I just don’t feel it’s as dark, dangerous and difficult as you’re describing here.

    I’ll post my thoughts on my blog (so thanks for inspiring me to do that).  Not disputing your solutions aren’t adequate though so I have no doubts you can fix things when they are falling short.  I’m not that naive to think it’s all great in the garden of matrix working.  

    I hold a strong view that hierarchical, straight up line management as a model is broken and failing faster than ever before.  We’ve been attempting to skill managers to work in this way and it just isn’t a winning approach.  It’s an "it’ll do" approach.

    Rather controversially, I keep thinking "Bye bye Taylorism – hello Tailoring"  And that means made to measure (matrix style centred on the jobn holder) not off a rack (in the line; MBO).

    I just felt there was an overly negative view here on matrix over hierarchy that could frighten more than enlighten.

    Sorry I can’t be more positive about this but thanks for taking the time to share your views.


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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

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