Solid line and dotted line reporting

What are solid line reporting and dotted line reporting in a matrix organization structure?

The definition of a matrix organization structure is where people report formally to more than one manager.

graphic organization structure

These reporting lines can take the form of what is known as a solid line or a dotted line reporting relationship. The weight of the line is meant to represent the level of power and influence of the different managers.

  • The solid line reporting relationship is similar to a traditional line management role. The solid line manager tends to look after the objective setting and performance evaluation processes and in the event of a dispute is the manager to whom the individual will tend to defer.
  • The dotted line reporting relationship is a weaker relationship. The dotted line manager still has a formal right to some part of the individual’s time and attention and will usually set some of goals. But it is not a strong relationship as a solid line.

The solid line role is often given to either the functional manager or a manager who is geographically close to the individual. This is to give them easier oversight.

The dotted line role is often given to an “activity” or project manager who is responsible for delivering some tasks or other activities but who does not need to get involved in the on-going development of the individual or the administrative processes around them.

In an environment where individuals have both a solid and dotted line environment they always have the chance to default to the solid line boss so there are relatively few advantages to having a dotted line over perhaps having an informal virtual team relationship.

Organizations often use the dotted line reporting as a first step towards a matrix organization structure. They tried to get things done through ad hoc or virtual teams and found that these activities were not getting sufficient priority because of the strength of the solid line reporting (often the functional reporting line). In an attempt to balance the power more in favour of the virtual team leader organizations introduce a dotted line reporting relationship. However the power is still an imbalanced relative to the traditional line management role and in the case of disputes the solid line normally wins. Dotted lines do not really balance the power of the traditional functional silos.

If the “horizontal” activity that cuts across the vertical silos of function and geography is really important then organizations eventually migrate to dual solid line reporting. In some cases individuals may report to more than two people with direct solid lines.

Typical responsibilities of the solid line manager include objective setting, running the appraisal and performance evaluation process, professional development, functional or local communication etc.

The dotted line manager tends to focus on delivering specific activities projects although they may have an input to objective setting and performance evaluation.

The management style that is effective in a dotted line relationship may be different than that in a solid line relationship. Dotted line managers have to exercise more influence without authority and get things done despite not having formal control over the resources.

There is some informal evidence from climate surveys within organizations that use these forms of reporting lines that people have a mild preference for their virtual, dotted line, bosses as they exercise a wider range of influence and have to be more persuasive rather than relying on traditional hierarchy and control to get things done.

The use of dotted and solid line reporting tends to equate with a focus on structure to get things done. In complex organizations, structure solves nothing. Once you have dual reporting lines, then you can’t usually solve issues by recourse to the lines themselves. Individuals with dual reporting lines need to have high levels of autonomy and skill to make decisions and manage trade-offs, otherwise they will be constantly escalating to their bosses who may only understand half of their role.

In “Making the matrix work – how matrix managers engage people and cut through complexity” Kevan Hall identifies the skills of creating clarity, managing cooperation, building trust and exercising control in an environment where influence without authority and accountability without control are the norm.

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