How national cultural differences have an impact on matrix management

As we have seen in previous posts on managing multiple bosses, one of the most fundamental skills of matrix management is the ability to manage “upwards” to reconcile and trade off between competing priorities from different matrix managers.

The ability to challenge people who are hierarchically more senior than you differs between cultures and this can cause problems in matrix management.

Various researchers have looked at how different national cultures have an impact on how hierarchy and status are managed at work. Hofstede talked about “power distance” (the difference in effective power between people at different levels and how easy this was to challenge) Trompenaars looked at “achievement and ascription” (where does status come from and how is it exercised).

It is fairly well established from this research and also from our own work in our tools for cross-cultural success training that some cultures find it relatively easy to challenge upwards – Dutch, Nordic and Australian cultures encourage direct upward challenge and this is well accepted by matrix managers.

In other cultures where the hierarchy is steep it is less acceptable to question your boss. People in a matrix may find it much more difficult to challenge their boss openly – much of Asia, Arab and more traditional Latin organizations may experience this.

In an international matrix, where the structure conflicts with this cultural norm, the matrix structure becomes distorted. Whilst in principle an individual has multiple reporting lines of similar power and can trade off the different inputs, in practice the local matrix manager has substantially more power and control and will expect (and receive) greater priority.

Have you seen examples of this in your matrix structure?

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