Is having two bosses like not having bosses at all?
“A slave with two masters is a free man” – a Roman proverb
Seeing a new article or a post about a matrix organization is a rare these days. Academics and practitioners seem to have lost interest with this organizational form. And yet, when I talk to executives, I hear about multiple reporting lines all the time. Reporting to multiple bosses or sharing the authority over employees with other members of the organization are increasingly common features of managerial jobs. The name “matrix” might have disappeared from the modern business vocabulary (although it is still used widely in UK, as I have been reminded recently), but the key elements of the matrix are ubiquitous among the modern organizations.
What is interesting about this recent article is that among the five tips offered, there is no mention of multiple bosses – the main characteristic of the multi-authority form and one that is central to the matrix or a project-based organizations. To some extent the five propositions that the author of the article offers could equally well be applied to improve functioning of organizations without bosses, like Valve, Gore or Zappos. Establishing the shared goals, clarifying roles and decision authority, building relationships, influencing instead of ordering people, and holding people accountable are the same key principles advocated by the proponents of the self-governed organizations. For example, the recent book Holacracy by Brian Robertson offers similar prescriptions in terms of team governance and leadership styles.
This raises the question – does having multiple bosses is the same as having no bosses at all? I would argue that this is not the case. The core tension in the matrix organization is produced by the existence of multiple lines of authority – multiple bosses. In fact this types of organization has been sometimes referred to as “conflict by design”. While having multiple bosses may sometimes feel like there are no bosses at all, the situation may also degenerate to a severe deadlock, when a team is being issued inconsistent directives and punished by not following them all. Engineering a matrix organization which limits the negative effects of reporting to multiple bosses, while capturing the benefits of greater employee autonomy is a worthy aspiration for organizational designers.