How To Navigate a Non-Linear Reporting Structure

Although it is not ideal, a Gallup survey suggests that 84 percent of US employees report to multiple managers. In past years, most businesses followed a hierarchal structure, whereby employees report to one person, who reports to the next in line, and so on up to the CEO. However, companies today operate in a more project-based environment, with teams spanning multiple departments on an as-needed basis. 

While the matrixed workplace does have its perks, namely that someone can work across departments and have accountability and oversight on various projects, it can present its challenges. Probably the biggest pitfall occurs when managers are not on the same page with neither party aware of the workloads or deadlines, and thus the limitations, of a “shared” staff member. In these cases, workers can easily become burnt out from being overworked and overwhelmed. A second significant source of frustration crops up if the two managers overseeing an employee have diametrically opposed management styles, such as where one manager is totally hands off and the other is a chronic micromanager. Add to this the typical power struggles and push and pull that comes with working across departments and you might have yourself a recipe for disaster. 

However, there are several strategies that you, as a business owner, can employ to help your co-managers work harmoniously.

Write it all down

While some managers may like pen and paper and others like to log everything digitally, the one thing folks should agree on uniformly is that projects need to be tracked in one central place. For example, If you use a spreadsheet-type program managers should be able to pull up the project, who it is assigned to, what steps are involved, and what deadlines are approaching. For their part, workers should be able to pull together this same list, only this time across departments so that they can identify any logjams associated with project steps or deadlines. Having a record system such as this can also help keep multi-person projects on task, with folks being able to reference information about what has been done and what deadlines are fast approaching, as well as who’s on the hook to get the job done.

Layout your expectations

Before a project even gets off the ground, each manager should lay out their expectations for who will be involved, what each person’s contribution will be, what they hope to accomplish, and a timeline to get the job done. In addition, managers would benefit from adding in project milestones and deadlines along the way as well as additional scheduled check-ins to go over these expectations and discuss any shifting priorities. Equally, employees should be realistic about what they will be able to accomplish, both from a skill and a time perspective, to help manage the expectations of their manager. In this way, neither the manager nor the employee will be let down and, with the frequent check-ins, the project scope and timeline can be adjusted as needed to ensure success.

Make it a priority

When assigning a project, managers should get into the habit of telling employees what the priority level for this assignment is or how it should slot in with their existing projects. In doing so, managers are acknowledging that their employees have a full plate and are helping them to understand how they can shuffle things around to fit in a new project. Take this idea to the next level by color-coding or numbering that spreadsheet we discussed in the first bullet to assign a priority level to each project or milestone, with 1 indicating the lowest priority and five the highest. Using this system, managers can be sure that they aren’t assigning all level fives to the same employee or letting others languish with only low-priority tasks. Further, as a project moves along, managers can adjust the priority level based on feedback from upper management or those in the thick of it to best represent the project and its needs.

Refine the to-do list

Having that spreadsheet in hand and having priorities assigned to each project, task, or step, can prove instrumental when asking an employee to pick up a high priority project. In settings where this occurs, a good manager can quickly help an employee identify what can be taken off their list and, with a broader project list in front of them, can potentially see where to reassign the project to other employees. Workers, for their part, should be encouraged to be vocal if they are working above capacity and not made to feel like they should be martyrs to get the job done.

Gather a group

While the pandemic has taught us that much of our “mandatory” meetings were never really necessary, gathering a group is actually a perfect solution in a non-linear reporting structure. During these get-togethers, the employee and their various managers should join to go over priorities, refine the to-do list, and ultimately make sure everyone is on the same page about the employee’s workload and deadlines. Again, this is not a time to air grievances or call for a complete re-do on a project, but rather an opportunity for everyone to communicate their wants and needs and reach a mutually agreeable decision about the next steps.

Turn to HR

Sometimes, even the best laid plans fall apart. If your spreadsheets are failing, you cannot determine your priorities, and your managers are unable to lead their staff effectively, it might be worth getting your HR rep involved. Bringing in an impartial individual can help the dueling managers to better sort through their needs versus their wants and actually come to a compromise about how to share their employees. Similarly, you should empower your employees to take the initiative and ask their managers for the feedback and support that they need, such as proactively scheduling meetings so that they can obtain feedback or implementing milestone deadlines to keep a project moving forward.

Do you have a non-linear reporting structure in your business? How do you manage the process?