Clear roles boost engagement within matrix organisations

04 April 2016 4 min. read
More news on

Matrix organisations have for decades been dominating the corporate world. However, while the organisational structure has benefits, particularly for collaboration, employees face a lack of clarity about their role – which creates disengagement. Improving role clarity and accountability, according to McKinsey, may improve engagement outcomes, which in turn correlates with improved business performance.

In a recent article from McKinsey & Company, titled ‘Revisiting the matrix organization’, the consultancy compares various differences between employees working in a matrix organisation and those in nonmatrix organisations. The study itself involved a Gallup panel web survey, completed by 3,956 full-time employees aged 18 and older. Additional studies drawn on for the research include a subsets of McKinsey’s global database for the Organizational Health Index (OHI), as well as a study focusing on the accountability practices of organisations which was conducted by using data from 254 unique companies and 781,224 respondents, collected in 2014 and 2015.

Matrix organisations, in which staff are moved around between reporting lines, have been around for decades. The value of such an organisational structure has come under considerable scrutiny, with supporters and detractors still debating the merits and pitfalls. In McKinsey’s recent research, the consulting firm looked at a range of survey results to identify the strengths and weaknesses of matrix organisations as well as means for bolstering the form of organisation, where necessary.

Nine Elements of Organizational Health

According to the Gallup survey, 84% of US employees are matrixed to some extent. 49% are slightly matrixed as they work on multiple teams some days, while 18% on multiple teams every workday but with different people, though mostly reporting to the same manager (matrixed). The final group of 17% is supermatrixed, working in different teams with different managers.

The survey finds that matrixed organisations are not very engaged with their employers, although engagement is an issue across all organisation types. Disengagement has a number of consequences for employers, including outcomes, such as productivity, profitability, and customer perceptions of service quality. The level of engagement for matrix type organisations slightly outperform nonematrix organisations, but not by much. In nonmatrixed organisations 28% of employees are engaged, 56% are not engaged while 16% are actively disengaged. Engagement improves slightly, by 1% and 3% for slightly matrixed and matrixed organisations respectively. In super matrixed organisations, 34% are engaged.

The research shows that source of engagement is a mixed bag, however, finding that matrix organisations create a strong basis for collaboration – which improves engagement and other outcomes – yet, this comes at a cost to role clarity, which reduces engagement. Benefits gained in one category are almost entirely lost in the other.

McKinsey notes that the increase in collaboration is a positive sign for the matrix model, as part of the aim of the model is to improve cross-business collaboration. Supermatrixed employees were almost twice as likely as slightly matrixed ones to say that their organisations not only helped them collaborate more effectively with coworkers, do their best work, and serve customers well, but also stimulated bottom-up innovation. Supermatrixed employees were also more likely to say that they had received recognition or praise during the past seven days, that their opinions counted, and that their fellow employees were committed to doing quality work.

matrixed engagement

On the other side of the engagement coin, the supermatrixed employees were considerably less likely (a minority) to say that they “know what is expected of me at work,” while 60% of the nonmatrixed do know what they are supposed to do. This highlights a relatively common complaint, say the consultants, of the matrix structure – where employees lack clarity about responsibilities, expectations, and who reports to whom. Critics seize up the lack of clarity as creating a slow decision making organisation, where the lines of communication are blurred, stifling productivity, and hinder organisational responsiveness and agility.

The article concludes that if organisations are better able to engage leaders to develop clear roles for matrixed and supermatrixed employees, with clear and consistent accountability and targets for individuals, then disengagement risks can be mitigated. Creating an environment with “higher levels of the ownership mentality predict higher levels of collaboration, organisational commitment, and corporate citizenship, as well as reduced levels of behavior that deviate from workplace norms,” finds the report.