Matrix Management skills # 4 – managing multiple bosses

One of the biggest differences in working and managing in a matrix organization structure is the fact that we may have multiple bosses.

Traditional hierarchy (literally “holy-order”) existed for thousands of years based on a single, clear line of command and control. It lasted so long for a good reason – it worked.

In a matrix, we recognize that the world has become more complex and that there are multiple perspectives and priorities. We recognize this in our organization structure with multiple reporting lines to several bosses who reflect the different interests of functions, geography, product line, technology etc.. etc…

These multiple reporting relationships can cause real problems – particularly if the managers’ ideas and objectives are not aligned, and even worse, if they hate each other.


I sometimes compare this situation with my family. When my kids were young they would come to me and ask “Dad can I do this?” My first response was “What did your mother say?” because I know that, in a family matrix, alignment is essential otherwise the kids will end up doing what they want.

Unfortunately in a corporate context, when an individuals tells one boss what the other has said the response is often “what does that idiot know about priorities, you should concentrate on what I say!” This can put the individual in an untenable position

Here are some tips on managing multiple bosses from our skills for the matrix training program

  • Get onto your managers’ shoes – see your role from their perspective and priorities
  • Create a summary of each managers objectives, style and preferences and in particular any areas where their priorities conflict or intersect (what we call the “pinch points”)
  • Be explicit about how you will work with each of them, how much time they can expect, how often you will meet with them, define your service level standards etc..
  • Make explicit any differences on expectations so that each of them is clear about what you can and cannot do (often managers are only aware of the workload that they create so may not appreciate how busy you are on other priorities).
  • Keep your manager informed, nobody likes to be surprised so keep them in the loop in critical areas – “earn the right to be left alone” by building their confidence in you.

The biggest sign that things are going wrong is high levels of escalation– make a note of the issues you have to escalate so you can discuss recurring problems with your bosses (more on escalation in a later post)

If you feel pulled in different directions like the person in our first matrix cartoon on alignment then this is also a clue

I once asked a boss of mine in my corporate career who was head of a global function how I could manage the 2 most senior executives in the organization when they got involved in issues – his best advice was to try and be in a  different continent from the one they were in at all times – I guess this helps too.

You may also enjoy these two articles I found on the two-boss scenario and juggling your work for multiple bosses

There is not much literature on this topic but one book  have seen is Managing multiple bosses by Patricia Nicholson. I read it some time ago and remember it as being OK for an introduction to the topic.

What have you learned about managing multiple bosses in a matrix organization?

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