Managing Dotted Line Relationships:

Traditionally, most organizations have been organized in functional silos (i.e, manufacturing, finance, sales, etc.) and the workflow has been structured and well-defined. Each silo manages its own area of responsibility and work is passed in a linear fashion from one silo to another, much like an auto assembly line or waterfall development process. Throughout the industrial revolution this approach has been most common and it has its plusses and minuses.

Traditional Silo Structure

Figure 1. Traditional silo organization structure

Today there are significant trends toward the use of temporary, cross-functional project teams. There are various reasons for this. The traditional silo operations are not geared for sharing joint responsibilities.

Matrixed, cross-functional organization

Figure 2. Matrixed, cross-functional organization


Project-oriented work, multiple geographies, increased product complexity; systems interdependencies all drive the necessity of cross-functional matrix teams. But matrixed relationships can really become complicated. An individual may be loaned temporarily to a project; however they then are responsible to two managers. And the formal manager usually has a greater pull on the person’s dedication since pay, rewards and future promotions all come from the formal manager. The project manager may contribute feedback on the employee, but both the employee and the formal manager know where the real power lies.


Organization chart showing an employee with a formal manager and a dotted line manager

Figure 3. Organization chart showing an employee with a formal manager and a dotted line manager

The formal manager has control while the project or dotted-line manager has some degree of influence, but not likely any serious control.

When describing these situations on an organization chart a dotted line is used. The employee has a solid line to their formal manager and a dotted line to the auxiliary or project manager. Let the dotted-line serve as a warning.

First, it is essential to document these multiple reporting relationships in the organization and to be able to share that information with management. You need to recognize where the opportunity for divided loyalties are operating so that you can be ready to manage them.

Second, where the dotted line relationship exists there needs to be clarity on expectations with the employee and the managers involved. As a project manager building a team you might not be able to get all of the time you need from a team member and that needs to be discussed with their formal manager.

Third, motivating one or more dotted line reports will require an understanding of what is important to them in terms of rewards. As a project manager you do not really have much reward power or authority, so you will need to understand what is important to the team member by interviewing them and finding out. While you may not be able to reward them financially perhaps you can give them an opportunity to acquire new skills, or have a leadership role that helps actualize their career development goals.

Managing dotted-line employees in the fast-paced, matrix-team project organization requires both a different management approach and also tools to make these relationships clear to everyone. You cannot manage what you cannot see. The OrgChart family of workforce planning and organizational charting solutions will position you for successful management.

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