Conflict in Matrix Organizations

A matrix is designed to create conflict. If conflict is not surfacing, it is a sign that the matrix is not working, and the natural conflicts are being hidden and acted out in dysfunctional ways.

Jay Galbraith, Designing Matrix Organizations that Actually Work

Surfacing and managing conflict productively is essential to making matrix organizations work well.  The point of a matrix is to take account of the potential impact of decisions on different regions, functions, and lines of business.  What looks good to Corporate may work in Europe and create problems in Asia.  What Sales thinks is necessary may seem too risky to Finance.  A matrix is designed to bring these different perspectives into a deliberative process so that decisions can be made in the interests of the whole.

Unfortunately, most people are not good at surfacing and managing conflict.  The most common presenting problem that we hear is some version of, “We avoid conflict.”  “We are too polite.”  “We have a norm of not disagreeing in meetings.” “We don’t talk about the tough issues.”  Failing to surface differences does not make them go away.  Rather they fester as people who think similarly talk with each other and reinforce their negative views of those who think differently.

The other side of the coin is that when conflict does erupt, it is often unpleasant and unproductive.  This reinforces the tendency to avoid surfacing conflict, which means that people do not gain experience in handling it, which means that when it does come out things go badly.

People can improve their ability to deal with conflict.  The developmental process works best as a team sport.  When people on different sides of a matrix share a language and set of tools for engaging different views, and especially when they go through learning experiences together, they create norms and practices that translate to greater organizational capability for making the matrix work.

Posted by Robert Putnam

Robert W. Putnam is a founding partner of Action Design, a consulting and education firm specializing in organizational learning and leadership development.

Robert Putnam's Bio