Articles

If You Want To Make Dotted Line Reporting Work, You Need To Do 3 Things

February 06, 2021 - By Ian Munro, Director, B Bus Sci (IS Hons) M Com (IS)

Effective leadership is easier said than done at the best of times. Leading with legitimacy is not necessarily difficult (it’s a simple matter of choosing giving over taking really), but it is certainly hard. When it comes to leading, knowing and doing are not the same thing.

However, when you introduce dotted lines, what started out as simple to understand but hard to do, becomes complicated to understand, and therefore even harder to do. It’s why matrix structures and project environments are so often fraught with leadership challenges. And it’s why, if you have dotted reporting lines in your business, it’s so important that you do the following three things …

1.  FACE THE RIGHT WAY

Try asking an employed person who they work for, and they’ll almost always give you one of two answers. They’ll either name their company or they’ll name their boss (manager). It is an accurate reflection of the way things currently are. The vast majority of people are serving up the line, not down it. Yet leadership does not have to be about service to company targets and our managers’ whims. In fact, legitimate leaders invert this line of service – legitimate leaders are first and foremost there for their people, not their bosses. They face down the line, not up it.

This principle is best explained through an example. I was contacted one day by a Safety Manager from a remote site in a manufacturing organisation. She had a problem. A new Safety Executive had recently been employed and she now had two reporting lines: one to her Factory Manager, and one to the new Safety Executive.

Since the appointment, she had started to struggle to get around to doing everything that was expected of her. By her own admission she was failing, and that view was shared by both senior managers.

The specific question she called me to ask was: “I am getting conflicting instructions, who should I listen to?”. And therein lies the problem. She suddenly had two bosses, and evidently both of them thought her job was to do what they said. The fact that they didn’t ever talk to each other, and she had too much work, was glossed over by them. She was there to follow instructions, and if she couldn’t cope, then she should “manage up the line”. Which is exactly what neither of them would let her do because each had his own targets to meet.

But she wasn’t off the hook either. If she’d been facing the right way, she would have stopped worrying so much about them and done her job. I shared this insight with her, and a new problem emerged: it wasn’t obvious to her what her job was, if not serving her two masters

2.  UNDERSTAND THE VALUE THE INDIVIDUAL IS SUPPOSED TO DELIVER – BOTH WHAT AND WHY

In our work, we are frequently told that “these days” people don’t take initiative. There are two reasons for this: 1) It’s easier to wait for instructions – especially if it’s what we’ve become accustomed to doing, and 2) we’ve been facing up the line for so long we’ve lost sight of what initiative we were supposed to be taking in the first place.

The real reason we employ Safety Managers is not so that Safety Executives and Factory Managers have people to boss around – it is to lead safety on site (specifically, to lead teams which in turn create safe working practices and environments). Once we understand that, the question “Who should I listen to?” becomes easy to answer: follow whichever instruction is most likely to lead to a positive outcome for safety on site.

Once we understand why we have a Safety Manager in the first place, the final critical step follows.

3.  AGREE AND IMPLEMENT SPECIFIC LEADERSHIP ACCOUNTABILITIES FOR EACH OF THE DUAL LINES

As with so many situations, clarity here is more important than correctness. Incorrectness shows up and can be corrected. Lack of clarity sows confusion, unhappiness, point solutions, unfairness, and ultimately more confusion.

This is not to say that significant thought shouldn’t go into deciding which leader is accountable for what. Start by asking why we have a dotted line reporting structure in the first place. Answers could be eg: “Because we have shared expertise in the Executive Team”, or “Because we need the flexibility of people being able to move between projects”.

There is no one rule here, but the answer will give some direction.

If the primary purpose of dotted lines is expertise sharing, then consider dividing leadership accountabilities along the lines of day-to-day leadership (managing workload, leave, appraisals, etc), and building expertise through coaching and standards setting.

If the purpose is to enable flexibility while building meaningful longer-term relationships, then consider dividing accountabilities between short term (day-to-day) and long term (career).

Whichever way you decide to divide accountabilities, make sure that it is clearly understood, communicated, and implemented by all parties.

Dotted reporting lines can be difficult and risky, but there can also be significant rewards for both individuals and the business.

We simply need to ensure that 1) leaders are facing the right way 2) that individuals have a clear understanding of the value they are expected to deliver, and 3) that leaders coordinate among themselves and don’t abdicate this responsibility to the often-unrealistic expectation that it is up to others to manage them “up the line”.

Ian Munro
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