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Master the Matrix: 4 Tips to Help You Lead Matrix Teams Successfully

4 Tips to Help You Lead Matrix Teams Successfully

Are your team members challenged with multiple initiatives and conflicting priorities? Are you struggling to make commitments your team can keep when team members don’t report to you? Welcome to a matrix organization!


Before we discuss tips, there are two essentials every leader needs to know about leading and managing a matrix:

  • A matrix organization requires an organizational operating system designed to enable two-dimensional operation.
  • Matrix leaders need to develop their ability to lead teams without authority.

Upgrading an organizational operating system is a major change that requires commitment from senior leadership. However, developing the ability to lead teams without authority requires YOUR commitment to change how you think about your role as a matrix leader and to develop new skills. Use these tips to master the matrix.

Tip #1: Identify Your Matrix Roles and Relationships

A matrix organization operates in two dimensions—the vertical and the horizontal. Leaders assume multiple roles in both dimensions.

Vertical roles are the most familiar — the coach (referred to as the boss in Vertical Management or Matrix Management 1.0) and the direct report.

The Coach

As a coach, there are times when your direct reports are in different locations and are often supporting other leaders in addition to you. Your responsibility in this role is to ensure your direct reports can succeed by helping them make commitments they can keep that are aligned with organizational strategy, and by guiding them to develop capabilities the organization needs.

The Direct Report

Horizontal roles create and deliver products and services to customers. They include internal supplier/customer, team leader (of a project, product or governance team), team member, stakeholder and sponsor. Your responsibility in these roles is to deliver organizational, team and individual outcomes while building relationships.

For a matrix to operate successfully, the horizontal dimension needs to be the primary dimension since it is where all the work to deliver products and services to customers happens.

Operationalizing Your Matrix white paper

Tip #2: Lead as an Empowered Adult

Our state of being impacts everyone around us. When we operate from a triggered state, we either try to control who and what is around us and behave like a bully, or we feel controlled and behave like a victim. These are both unempowered states. If you want to lead a creative and inspired team, you need to operate from an empowered adult state.

Being an empowered adult means you choose how to think and act when interacting with others. You choose not to react to triggers or take things personally. And, you recognize when others are operating in an unempowered state and help draw them out of it.

Leading as an empowered adult requires that you manage your sphere of control, recognizing that the ONLY thing you can control is your attitude, actions, and reactions.

To become a better matrix leader, STOP and make a CHOICE when someone or something triggers you. Choose to lead as an empowered adult and you will have the power to lead more creative and inspired teams.

Partner Relationships

Tip #3: Cultivate Partnership Relationships

Fulfilling multiple roles in a matrix organization results in multiple relationships. In the horizontal dimension, relationships are non-authority based and you don’t have the authority to tell someone else what to do. Therefore, it’s essential that you cultivate partnership relationships.

Partnership relationships are relationships between equals collaborating to create something new, solve a problem, improve a process, etc. Cooperation—not competition—is the basis of partnership relationships in the horizontal dimension.

To become a better matrix leader, consider the relationships you have. Find common ground by defining goals, outcomes, and accountability up front. This provides the framework for the win/win outcomes that partnerships produce.

Tip #4: Adopt a Collaborative Leadership Approach

Leading in a matrix requires the ability to lead without authority. This calls for a shift from a directive leadership approach to a collaborative one.

Since you don’t have authority, you need to build consensus and commitment among team members. The best way is to have them participate in creating the output. Collaborative leaders act as facilitators using collaborative team-based methods and tools to create team outcomes through team participation. They do not create plans, make decisions or solve problems themselves and then ask team members for input.

To become a better matrix leader, build your proficiency in collaborative planning, decision-making, and problem-solving methods. You’ll see a difference in your team’s level of commitment and you’ll be rewarded with more creative solutions, clearer decisions, and achievable plans.

Leading teams in matrix organizations requires the ability to lead without authority. By developing new skills and using new methods and approaches to leading it will be easier to build great teams committed to producing results.

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Cathy Cassidy

As the Managing Director of the International Matrix Management Institute, Cathy helps organizations and practitioners adopt the skills and methods they need to succeed in today’s complex, dynamic environment. She is a Matrix Management 2.0™ Master Consultant and the author of several books on matrix management, including her most recent publication, Managing Projects in a Matrix. She is a key contributor to the Matrix Management 2.0™ Body of Knowledge, co-developer of the Matrix Management 2.0™ organizational operating system, and a lead developer for the company.