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Matrix Management, Personality Clashes, and Darwinian Management™

Author: ; Published: Nov 8, 2010; Category: Cross-Functional Teams, Matrix Management; Tags: , , , ; No Comments»

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In the matrix organization, personality issues hemorrhage in to fill gaps created by structural ambiguities.  This also happens in traditional hierarchical structures, but that is not our focus here. One of Strategic Futures matrix management success factors is role clarity. To the extent that defined roles in your matrix organization are unclear, you will create a fertile breeding ground for personality-based clashes. These rifts can do lasting damage to relationships that are needed for a shared-fate culture where shared objectives are pursued using shared resources. Personality clashes that would have rarely if ever been ignited become needlessly incendiary because of role ambiguity.

In the past quarter, I have worked with two clients in the same sophisticated industry – an industry which will remain unnamed. Both of these organizations have suffered intensifying personality clashes among senior leaders. In one instance, the roles were well-defined at the time of matrix management implementation, but have been allowed to drift. In the other instance, the roles were not clearly defined at the outset and ensuing disagreements with accompanying personality flare-ups have occurred.

While it is true that personality clashes can and will occur among strong executives even when structure has been well-defined with accompanying role clarity, matters are exacerbated when the strict lines dividing horizontal and vertical authority and responsibilities have been allowed to blur or otherwise to become intertwined.

To avoid reaching the “point of no return” on personality clashes within the organization, it is best to ensure that roles and prerogatives are defined clearly and then enforced strictly by top leadership. The absence of fundamental clarity creates a dysfunctional breeding ground for such conflict.  The dynamic that gets unleashed by role ambiguity is straightforward: When there is doubt about who has the authority to do what, ego enters the fray and personality variables that would otherwise be suppressed or otherwise unexpressed are unleashed.  The result is destructive tension rather than the constructive tension that we seek through the matrix structure.

With this said, the existence of such conflicts should not be cause for utter despair. One of my earliest matrix management consulting assignments involved such a conflict. The Chief Scientific Officer here in the US was sending “ricochet shots” intended to deprecate his US Chief Operating Officer via company headquarters personnel located in Europe. Understandably, there were hard feelings between the CSO and the COO. The differences between the “business” personality and the “science” personality were inflamed. Each held a hard-bitten, passionate viewpoint that was in conflict with the other. The two were on the brink of being unable to work together on anything — for any purpose. However, with a new agreement that clarified the roles of each and the protocol for consultation with others here in the US and abroad, they were able to work it out for the good of the company and for their own respective careers and comfort levels. Role clarity made for a happy ending to a story that could have ended disastrously for the parties and for the company.

Bottom line? There is plenty of good that can be done by human relations consultants who are focused on improving and repairing damaged interpersonal relationships. On the other hand, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Ensure role clarity at the outset and maintain it throughout and you will avoid the exacerbation of mis-fitting personalities. There are times when a Chief Executive needs to resort eclectically to Darwinian Management whereby the “survival of the fittest” is an appropriate contest. However, Darwinian “survival of the fittest” scenarios are best reserved for extraordinary use: Role clarity is the best antidote for abating conflicts that never needed to happen in the first place and, in the end, added absolutely no value or special insights, only distress and lost productivity.

If you need help with role clarity or standing up your matrix management organization, please call us, 703/836-8383 or email us at info@strategicfutures.com.

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