Matrix Management

Building a culture of trust when you need control

A complex matrix, virtual or global organisation brings special challenges in building trust and exercising control. Trust is essential to the functioning of an organisation that relies on collaboration and communication across distance, cultures, time zones, through technology and across organisational boundaries.

However, at the same time, this is a big change from trusting people who we know well and spend a lot of time with.  Leaders new to remote management often find themselves increasing control (usually without realizing it) to restore their comfort levels, when they are leading people who they don’t see regularly and whose progress they can’t easily monitor.

In the past, trust building was often a free by-product of proximity. It happened during breaks, over lunch and at social events. Our colleagues came from the same culture, they watched the same TV shows and laughed at the same jokes; trust building happened naturally alongside work.

Today we are expected to trust and collaborate with people who we don’t know as well, sometimes just because we share a common email server!

At the same time, there are increased pressures towards control. We may operate in tightly regulated industries such as pharmaceuticals or banking and we may be making decisions that have implications across different geographies and business units.

In these cases, we have no choice but to increase control. If you are regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration in pharmaceuticals you can’t respond to a factory accreditation visit by asking them to trust you, you need to show your process and control.

Or we may just be working in a complex world, where people are very interdependent and issues are complex with a high risk of failure.

In management, there are many situations that can cause us to increase control – when we miss the numbers, when business is tough, when someone makes a mistake or does things differently than we expect. However, control can easily become like a ratchet, it’s easy to turn it on but hard to turn it off.

We need to counter the natural inclination to increase control when times are tough, with taking the opportunity to release it when times get better – otherwise we are on a constant journey towards more control.

We also need to be selective, working in a regulated industry for example, it’s easy to take that mindset of control which is essential in manufacturing and product development and apply it to everything you do. Control becomes a metaphor for your business and its also expressed in the way you manage people. Perhaps it is not surprising that highly regulated industries often find it difficult to innovate and move slowly in a whole range of areas.

Control and trust are two sides of the same coin we tend to control people we don’t trust and control can also create reciprocal distrust.

One useful tool we use with our clients is to focus on escalation. When people escalate, they are telling you that they lack the capability or confidence to make the decision for themselves, or that they have reached a level where they perceive you want to be involved and in control (rightly or wrongly).

Treat every escalation that comes to you as an indication that there could be a gap in the capability or confidence of your people or as an example that uncovers an existing mole you control level. Always ask yourself what would you need to do so that the individual could solve it for themselves next time? This may involve giving them some extra information, authority or just permission.

Sometimes of course the escalation will be legitimate, all companies have defined approval levels for example, but is still worth challenge whether they are appropriate in this situation.

Similarly, when you feel you need to escalate to your boss, make a point of telling him or her why and let them know that if you have this additional information, authority or permission you wouldn’t need to bother them next time.

Keep a document on your desktop and record any escalations that come your way, or that you need to make. Analyse the correspondence to see what factors are causing you to escalate or to receive escalations. Take some time to think about how you could change this and you will constantly be pushing back at the controls below and above you.

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