5 Employee Engagement Barriers in a Matrix Organization

April 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Systems deteriorate without attention.  They lose entropy.  Order and predictability will naturally deteriorate into chaos.  Therefore senior management must continuously lead any employee engagement initiative or it will surely deteriorate.  We all know that change must come from the top.  Senior executives play an especially significant role because they must lead the managers who must then provide effective leadership to the employees.

This is especially true in a matrix organization.  In a recent interaction with organization development professionals it became clear that the matrix organization has not met expectations for performance improvement.  Performance in matrix organizations depends more upon cooperation and trust than on authority and control.  Employees may be assigned multiple projects and often need to work cross functionally without having authority to command people on their team.  They need influencing skills not command and control.  They require trusting relationships and not reporting relationships.

In my work I have found it necessary to remove hidden barriers preventing the efficacy of the matrix organization.  In my experience the matrix structure has not worked well because the context has flaws.  It is a lot like putting a 12 year old into a standard shift car without training and with the parking brake on.  There is going be a lot of grinding and bucking. 

There are five barriers I believe must be addressed:

  1. The typical performance appraisal is inconsistent with the idea of a matrix organization (or systems thinking).  This must be modified significantly to help all parties manage trust and avoid the old habit of using authority to control behaviors to get things done.
  2. The typical pay-for-performance policy is also a method for controlling behaviors.  This policy creates the unintended consequences of competition, cheating, and sabotage.  A new process for rewarding teams or the entire team is needed.
  3. Managers don’t have influencing skills.  We have been taught, and our children continue to be taught, the Skinner methods of motivation (manipulation) not influence.  People are more than just animals.  We need a new leadership theory (paradigm) that gives us new choices for how to react when we see mistakes.
  4. Everyone needs immediate feedback in a matrix like organization.  We need a process that provides a safe, non-threatening, positive, data without criticism when things don’t go well.  We need to understand the difference between common causes and special causes of problems.  We also need to give permission to employees to give feedback up to managers and across to colleagues without fear. 
  5. Finally, management and project managers (those who have no direct reports) need to be trained in the key influencing skills.   Without the removal of the first four barriers training managers to use influencing skills will fall flat in the face of all the “bucking and grinding.” 

 If you have ever tried to grow flowers by placing seeds on concrete you know what it is like to lead a matrix organization with these five barriers.  All the sun and water will do nothing if the soil is not ready.  These barriers prevent the benefits of matrix to be achieved because the behaviors necessary can’t take root.

Remove the barriers and we can then better embrace the matrix organization.  We can then see the behaviors necessary for high performance and then better utilize the great ideas of the matrix organization.

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