Reporting to multiple bosses? Issues and opportunities

A businessman is standing next to a sign with arrows pointing in different directions.

Organisations that utilise matrix management or multiple reporting lines have unique challenges that are not always backed by a dedicated support system. Dealing with multiple bosses requires more education on communicating effectively, navigating differences and developing the ability to influence.

1. So, who’s my boss? The picture

The ramifications and associated frustration of managing multiple reporting lines rarely receive high-level attention. Reporting to multiple bosses is frequent in large organisations, but it is also common in less complex organisations, which tend to operate under less defined role structures. Multiple reporting lines in companies are often the outcome of organisational design but may also be the result of, for example, M&A integration.

Multiple reporting lines commonly means reporting to a solid line manager and a dotted line manager—or maybe two. The geographical report may add to the functional report and the hierarchical report. In essence, alongside the day-to-day challenges, this configuration requires navigating what can often become confusion over accountability—or even competition over loyalty.

The rationale for utilising either multiple reporting lines or a matrixed structure, which translates into multiple reporting lines, is associated with a number of benefits. These include:

  • Cross-functionality and cross-fertilisation
  • Ensuring multi-disciplinary and overall higher challenge to ideas
  • Maximising internal coordination
  • Creating more opportunities for professional development and learning
  • Employing wider teams’ dynamics and broadening opportunities for internal networks

2. Having more than one boss: the issues

However, for most reports, downsides and areas of frustration are common. In my experience, the most frequent areas of frustration include:

  • Role overlapping, which results in unclear accountability
  • Poor communication between managers, misaligned agendas and conflicting demands
  • Slow decision making due to the involvement of multiple stakeholders and an increase in the number of meetings
  • Risk of double work and uncoordinated reporting lines causing overwork
  • When teams are divided by barriers, such as language, time zones and culture, managers struggle ironing out issues and resolving internal conflicts

In large organisations, the day-to-day often stress-tests the benefits. This is because employees who report to a line manager simultaneously have to interface with one or more dotted line managers, who then impose extra demands and are rarely aware of the workload of their dotted reports. Priorities may not be clear and may take time to resolve. When communication between managers is intermittent, conflicting requests create expectations that are stressful to manage.

3. Businesses with multiple reporting lines need more specific training, coaching and support

Organisations that operate under these models are driven by the desire to coordinate the interests of different internal functions, geographical areas and products or services. These configurations work best when they offer a fit-for-purpose support system.

A dedicated support system includes offering specific training, mentoring and coaching to managers, and their reports on the skills needed to successfully deal with this organisational setup. These skills include:

  1. The ability to communicate effectively and influence stakeholders. Influencing skills are needed when dealing with dotted line reporting, as these do not rely on formal authority. Regularly letting solid line managers understand how much work is on your plate from the dotted line manager is good communication.
  2. A clear understanding of cultural differences to ensure that international teams are aware of their different approaches. This includes listening skills
  3. Understanding how successful collaborations work. This includes setting boundaries when dealing with parallel priorities and building an inclusive culture.
  4. Knowing how to build rapport and develop internal networks.
  5. Building an internal coaching culture to support effective performance, facilitate a greater level of challenge and build trust.
  6. Adopting extra care and consideration when dealing with reorganisation. These configurations are, indeed, more vulnerable to losing the internal know-how developed by the individuals in charge of coordinating the reporting lines.

The challenges faced by both managers and their reports are unique and require the development of unique skills.

4. The opportunities: making it work

When do things work well? If simplifying the organisational design is not the desired outcome, successfully managing multiple reporting lines remains a delicate balancing act for many companies. Businesses who devote resources to a dedicated support system have greater chances of ensuring that their teams are purposefully engaged.

Training, mentoring and coaching go hand-in-hand with a supportive organisational culture. When combined, these allow professionals and teams to become more effective in self-management and in making the most out of multiple perspectives.

Drawing clear lines also contributes significantly to the success of these configurations: who does what exactly? Who makes decisions? Who has the final say in, for example, performance assessment? Whether lines are drawn vertically or horizontally or whether they are drawn using percentage weights or accountabilities, the clearer they are, the better. Indeed, when simplifying multiple reporting lines is not an option, a high degree of clarity will be central to sustaining productivity rather than confusion.

An internal reward system that visibly incentivises collaboration remains key to sustaining engagement, transparency and positive outcomes.

Organisations that adequately empower their managers to make decisions are also more likely to succeed. Additional delegation at their levels means agility in decision making and less escalation to the complex reporting line. Above all, this means developing the ability to deal with ambiguity and turn ambiguity into opportunities.

Experiencing any of these issues? Find out how coaching can support your specific challenges.

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