Dealing with conflict in the matrix

As “matrix” management replaces more traditional top-down organisational structures, it can create new people-management issues. Chief executive of Global Integration Kevan Hall explains that you don’t need to be Keanu Reeves (pictured) to manage the people problems that can arise.

Many organisations have been moving away from the traditional “vertical” organisation of functions and geography. They have to sell to and serve global customers in a consistent way, they operate global supply chains and integrated business functions such as HR and IT. This means that work cuts across countries and functions “horizontally”. To reflect this reality, organisations adopt a matrix structure where people have more than one boss or use virtual teams to make the organisation more connected.

However, this more complex way of working can lead to increased opportunities for conflict. So, we need to understand what’s different and how we can identify and resolve conflict quickly when people rarely meet face to face.

Increased opportunities for conflict

Increased opportunity for conflict in a matrix can include the following:

  • In a matrix, employees have more than one boss and work on multiple teams. This leads to multiple streams of goals that compete for time and attention.
  • Resources are shared more widely across the organisation and this can create competition for resources.
  • Working with more diverse groups of colleagues from different functional, corporate and national cultures, and different perspectives and values, can easily cause misunderstanding.
  • Virtual teams often have limited opportunities to meet face to face; instead they are working together through email, webinars, video and other tools, all of which make misunderstandings more likely.
  • Leaders who are used to a more “command and control” way of working may find it difficult to adapt to accountability without control and influence without authority and may respond by trying to increase their control over activities.

Despite the increased potential for conflict, the fact that it is happening can be harder to spot. People having a disagreement on a conference call may put the call on mute, complain bitterly to the colleague next to them, and then re-join the call without saying anything. Conflict is happening, but the other people on the call may not be aware of it. People operating in a second or third language or through an unfamiliar technology may be inhibited from getting their view across.

Identifying conflict

The first challenge, therefore, is making conflict explicit. This is easier when you are face to face, so you need to generate opportunities to identify conflict during meetings. When you are working remotely you need to get better at flagging the issue, at having the confidence to “name the beast” to call out conflict when you see it with your colleagues. Explicitly recognising conflict is the first step in resolving it.

Not all conflict is harmful – provided it is resolved. Conflict can flow from deeply held convictions about what is the right thing to do for the business from passionately held different perspectives. We do not want to drive this passion out of our businesses. An occasional bust up or explosion of emotion can relieve the tension. If the underlying causes of the conflict are not resolved then it will happen again.

Resolving conflict

A typical sequence for resolving conflict has four stages – recognising the problem, understanding the differences, creating shared purpose, and building and delivering agreements. Having recognised the problem, the next three phases involve moving past understanding the differences into finding common ground and deciding how you are going to work together in the future. These three phases are much more difficult to deliver remotely, particularly at the early stage where there is often an emotional component to the discussions.

Meet face to face if you possibly can at this stage, as it is important to understand what people think and feel and also to understand why. You then need to look hard for existing points of commonality, which often means finding the common business goal.

Conflict is often an individual issue between a couple of members of your team, so focus your attention on them rather than involving everyone. If conflict has escalated to involve the whole team or department, then you have a serious problem and should probably get external support.

It is important in a matrix to give leaders the skills and confidence to deal with conflic – inexperienced or unskilled leaders often suppress conflict and so it gets worse over time. If you catch it early it is usually not a problem – if you let it fester it can infect a team or organisation more widely.

Kevan Hall is chief executive of Global Integration, consultants and trainers in matrix management, virtual teams and global working. He is author of Making the Matrix Work: How Matrix Managers Engage People and Cut through Complexity

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