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Matrix organization

Matrix Organization: Powerful Questions to Reduce Angst and Build Trust

by | Feb 6, 2023 | By Karin Hurt and David Dye, conflict, powerful phrases |

To Foster Better Collaboration in a Matrix Organization
Keep the Conversation Flowing

When we ask senior leaders of our global clients about the biggest source of conflict and frustration in their companies, the answer is almost always the same. “Oh, undoubtedly it’s trying to collaborate in our matrix organization.”  The more complex the organization, the trickier the collaboration and decision-making.

Today we bring you powerful phrases to foster collaboration to build trust in a matrix organization.

What is a Matrix Organization?

A matrix organization typically combines a traditional hierarchical organizational structure with an overlay of project-based cross-departmental teams. You find matrixed teams most often in tech companies and large global companies. The matrixed teams help companies maintain normal operations while focusing cross-functional departmental resources on big or complex projects.

Are Matrix Organizations a Good Idea?

When executed exceptionally well, matrix organizations can be more agile than traditional organizational structures. Benefits sometimes include more collaboration and alignment across departments and brands. They also can allow for fantastic learning opportunities as people can move between projects and assignments based on skill sets they have or exposure and learning opportunities they need.

At their best matrix organizations help spread and unify your values and culture.

On the flip side, matrix teams often struggle with competing priorities, leaving team members conflicted about what matters most. And, without clarity of who owns what decision, the matrix structure can make decision-making frustratingly slow. We often hear complaints of too many meetings with too many people, but no one who can or will make a decision.

Powerful Questions to Build Deeper Trust and Connection in a Matrix Organization

If you’re facing conflict or lack of collaboration, you might want to start here with our 12 Powerful Phrases for Navigating Challenging Workplace Conflict. These are go-to standards that can help de-escalate conflict and build a deeper connection.

And, these phrases can also help when dealing with some nuances and challenges in these more complex matrix teams.

1. What does success look like (for this project, for our customers, and for each of us?)

One of the biggest sources of conflict in matrix organizations is competing priorities. For example, you might have a cross-departmental team collaborating to sell to a single customer. Each department has its own agenda and strategic goals.

The collaborative approach makes it easier for the customer. They can see all the offerings in one place. And, they don’t have to deal with the hassle of multiple salespeople and negotiations. However, this approach requires significant collaboration and sacrifice with the departments behind the scenes.

Each department must consider the overall customer relationship, not just for its product or performance metric. Success for the overall customer relationship might mean sacrifice for any given product or department.

Having candid conversations about what success looks like for all involved is vital for any successful matrix team.

2. Who are our key stakeholders and who will we involve and include them?

Getting this right as early as possible can save serious time.  Talk with your matrixed team and make a map of your stakeholders, and who needs to know what, when, and why. And then, stakeholder your map with them.

This might feel overwhelming at first, but aligning on this can be helpful for a variety of reasons. First, the conversation amongst yourselves will help clarify expectations, and it’s better to agree on who you will include before tensions get high, or you’re under pressure to execute quickly. And, as you stakeholder your map, you can look for ways to suggest ways to simplify. Who knows, you might even get an “oh, I don’t need to be involved at that level,” response or two.

3. How will we facilitate information flow?

As you’re planning for stakeholders, you can also make a plan for how important information will flow to anyone working on (or with an interest in) the project or work you are doing. Consider who needs to know what and the best way to communicate. Challenge yourselves to keep everyone informed, so no one is blindsided or barraged with last-minute requests, while at the same time avoiding unnecessary meetings or overwhelming people with details they don’t need.

4. What is my role in this project? What’s yours?

Another big source of conflict in matrix teams is when roles and expectations aren’t clearly defined. I think you’re taking the notes, you don’t think that’s your job. You think you should be the one talking to the customer, I disagree. As with most conflicts, one good conversation about expectations can prevent fourteen “why didn’t you conversations.”

Taking time to clarify your roles (and stakeholder roles) can save you a lot of time and wasted anxiety.

5. Who owns this decision?

Another biggie. One of the reasons decision-making is so slow on cross-departmental teams, is everyone thinks they should own the decision, so no one does. Or, there’s a strong desire to reach a consensus, and every decision requires hours of stakeholdering and escalation.

6. What can we do to make this as simple as possible?

Ask this powerful question as much as you can about processes, systems, decisions, and communication for your matrix team.

7. Who REALLY needs to be in this meeting?

With the emphasis on “really.” One of the biggest challenges we hear from our clients in matrixed organizations, is there are too many meetings, with too many people. Consider other ways to keep people informed.

8. When we can’t agree on a decision, how will we escalate?

This is a vital question to ask BEFORE you need to escalate an issue. Trying to decide how and when it’s appropriate to escalate when tensions are high, inevitably makes the conflict worse. And often, there’s wasted time with different team members escalating to their functional managers with different information, fueling additional conflict and frustration a level above.

Consider asking this question during your chartering process for your matrix team you’re kicking off the project.

9. What and how should we celebrate success and key learning?

Another challenge of matrix organization is that the rewards and recognition systems often don’t align. It’s likely that the manager who signs your performance review or recommends your raise isn’t close to your day-to-day work.

Taking time to celebrate success as a matrix team and to debrief what you’re learning along the way can make a huge difference in morale and employee development. Consider making time for post-project celebrations where you celebrate what you’ve done and the impact, as well as what you’ve learned.

Your Turn

What would you add? What are the most important questions to foster collaboration and success in a matrix organization?


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Karin Hurt and David Dye

Karin Hurt and David Dye help human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results. As CEO and President of Let’s Grow Leaders, they are known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. Karin and David are the award-winning authors of five books including, Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. David Dye is a former executive and elected official. Karin and David are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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7 Practical Ways to be a Bit More Daring

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