Matrix management evolved to enable organizations to deal with more complex issues. While it can be effective at improving information distribution and managing multiple aspects of product distribution, matrix management can also lead to increased conflicts. Research typically points to several conflict sources including ambiguous goals, uncertainty regarding decision making rights, and mixed employee loyalties.
While conflicts may be natural in matrix settings, they do not have to lead to dysfunction. Some conflicts can be prevented by leaders taking time to clarify the organization’s larger goals. This can help prevent confusion over which goals take precedence, as well as how to deal with confusion that may subsequently arise. A similar approach can address who owns the right to make which decisions and how disagreements over decisions can be managed.
While some conflicts can be managed in advance, issues will still arise. Differences are a part of life and can actually benefit groups when they are managed effectively. To do this an organization using matrix management will want to train its managers to see conflict as a natural part of doing business and as a potential source of creativity and improved decision making. This will require creating norms for handling conflicts as they arise and developing constructive communication skills that managers can use to search for solutions instead of persons to blame.
The question of mixed loyalties can be harder to resolve. Does an employee owe more allegiance to a project team or to their functional department? This issue not only can cause confusion for the employee but it can also create dissension within a team. Although it would be nice if the problem didn’t exist, it often does. One approach for leaders to take is bringing people from both groups together to stress the superordinate goals of the organization. This can help create a sense of unity and loyalty to the bigger organization.
While conflict is inevitable, it can be managed and can lead to better results when leaders take time to clarify issues and stress unity of purpose.