Many leaders have invested years in getting promoted up the organizational chain of command. Such upward mobility has long served as the yardstick by which corporate success has been measured, an ingrained mindset that dates back to the 1950s.
Entire careers have been built on reaching the next level and cultivating a leader’s “world,” staking out a prime spot on the organizational chart and tallying an impressive array of direct reports. For years, this hierarchy has determined someone’s power base and shown who has accountability for what.
But climbing the corporate ladder and collecting resources is an ego-driven game, one that clashes with the goals of the modern matrix organization (which is any organization greater than 50 employees). Having resources that report to you focuses on their productivity and prioritization in relation to your personal accountability metrics, a model that often undermines the organization’s strategic objectives. The directive approach to management is also disempowering and hurts overall employee engagement.
The nature of work has become more virtual and more global—so much so that today’s leaders often have direct reports that they have never met or even seen. Geographic distribution has changed the very nature of leadership, but because so many have built their careers by collecting direct reports, leaders remain wedded to the traditional hierarchy.
It’s a very hard shift for leaders to make, even when they understand that change is necessary. After all, this familiar system typically controls their rewards and recognition.
While training a group of senior leaders, one of our consultants talked about letting go of the hierarchy. In fact, she wouldn’t let the participants talk about who reported to whom for the entire day. The company’s chief quality officer pointed out that he had built his entire career around making sure that he controlled everything around him. Because he had the final signoff, he wanted to know what was going on at all levels that reported to him. Even after learning about how the modern matrix company operates and agreeing that it was the right direction for his firm, he still couldn’t understand how work gets done without directive authority because he was still focused solely on the hierarchy—not the horizontal dimension where work actually happens.
It’s the single biggest concern we hear from leaders after introducing the concept of leading without authority. They’re worried about being held accountable for results when they don’t have authority over the resources that get the work done. No one wants responsibility for something that they can’t control.
Leading Without Authority
The complexity of matrix organizations requires the ability to work across the organization, without depending upon authority. Because so many projects and processes are cross-functional, it’s rare that one individual has authority over all the necessary resources. As a result, when companies engage us to train professionals how to work in a matrix, the conversation naturally evolves into training leaders how to lead without authority as a first step. After all, leadership’s behavior has a direct impact on the professionals who support them. If we can optimize how leaders guide their teams, then professionals will be able to perform their work much more effectively. In a matrix, leadership roles become more fluid, acting more as facilitators of a process than as dictators. In addition, because leadership no longer depends on control, anyone can step into this role, regardless of job title or position on the org chart.
Leaders’ underlying concern seems to lie in the fear that they’ll be out on a ledge by themselves if they accept accountability for the actions of individuals they cannot control. In a matrix organization, however, accountability connects everyone. Leaders have personal accountability for their teams; it’s the leader’s responsibility to champion the team’s needs and to give them the best possible chance for success. At the same time, each member shares in the team’s responsibility to produce a successful outcome. And both leaders and teams are accountable for the success of the overall organization. This multi-level system of shared accountability uses commitment, rather than authority or control, to manage people and processes.
In short, training and coaching leaders to lead without authority is critical for operating more efficiently and cross-functionally in today’s complex matrix organization.
If you’re in human resources or organizational development, your role is to enable the rest of the organization to run effectively. Updating to a commitment-based accountability system is critical to driving the healthy, productive behavior needed throughout the organization. The following questions can help you determine whether it’s time to rethink not only your accountability system but also the entire operating system for the organization:
- Does our current structure support horizontal processes and projects?
- Are we teaching our leaders how to manage without authority?
- Do our leaders set priorities with other leaders so that teams are aligned with the organization’s larger strategy?
- Do our employees have the right processes and tools to collaborate fully?
- Does the existing system of accountability encourage empowerment and creative thinking or blame and cover your backside behavior?
A Positive Perspective on Accountability
When you ask people about how accountability works in their organization, their word choice is often telling, such as “Whose throat do we choke when something goes wrong?”
Well, that’s really positive. Instead, perhaps we should approach accountability by focusing on things going right—and taking measures to engineer that success.
Power actually comes from inside (we call this the “empowered adult” state), and a leader’s level of influence in the organization should be tied to how much strategy he or she is actually driving.
For example, if you’re accountable for a major initiative like new product development, that’s significantly more important than the fact that you have five resources reporting to you.
By shifting to commitment-based accountability, leaders start to see their relative roles in the organization, as well as where their power actually comes from. This clarity often makes them want to drive more strategy instead of micromanaging details.
Here is where we need to tap into the appropriate coaching and training to help leaders manage through negotiation, buy-in, and commitment, bringing all team members on board for the success of the organization. Otherwise, if we leave leaders in their default positions of resorting to a directive approach, you’ll continue to see an unengaged and disempowered workforce, typically marked by revolving-door turnover.
Some leaders will make this successful transition, and others won’t, in which case a decision will need to be made regarding their ultimate role in the organization.