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Three ways to better influence and drive action in matrix organizations

Below is a reprint of Nihar’s post on LinkedIn Pulse entitled: “How to Get People to Act When You Have No Authority.”

An executive’s product line captured extraordinary market share growth making it the most successful in his company.

And yet his chances for a promotion looked grim.

A recent 360 review highlighting friction between this leader and his peers in HR, marketing and finance greatly troubled his boss.

The boss asked me to coach the executive on learning to motivate and inspire his team around a shared vision, rather than continue to engage in internal conflict.

I was up for the challenge.  But I soon realized truly collaborative results would require something much more than that.

Buy-in doesn’t equal action

Thought leaders and management experts remind us that motivation starts with clarifying a shared purpose and the “why” behind the work.

But the link between shared motivation and expected action is complicated by human nature and the way authority is set up in today’s organizations.

People are unpredictable. And their behavior is even more unreliable when committing to colleagues outside of their vertical reporting structure.

It is this horizontal dynamic of organizational life, and the challenge of influencing without authority that elude even the most enlightened leaders.

Think about the product manager who can’t depend on fellow leaders within the business in finance, HR, or sales (and vice versa) when each is focused on their own boss’ or team’s expectations. Or the tendency to blame peers when shared projects fail but then take individual credit when they succeed.

In today’s companies nothing works without managing commitments across the matrix. Yet no silver bullet exists to get things done across reporting structures without unpredictability and subsequent tension.


Moving from motivation to action

For better horizontal collaboration, his boss was right: the executive did need to learn how to motivate his peers around a shared purpose. To do that well, he would need to empathize with them.

I asked him,

“What if you treated your peers the way you treat your customers in the market?”

Perhaps he could understand and motivate his peers better if he shifted his perspective.

But that was only half the battle.

To move his peers from agreement to reliable execution, he had to reduce their resistance when responding to needs outside of their individual agenda.

To come up with ideas, I looked around to find other settings where such influencing challenges are a way of life.

It turns out government policy is a big one.

The White House was so aware of this complicated link between “buy-in” and actual participation on their policies that it formed a team of experts to use tactics based on leading behavioral research.

Could their examples improve the executive’s collaborative results? He tried these three ideas, which any leader can use to achieve better outcomes.


1.  A way to get peers to respond quicker.

Much of the executive’s frustration came from chasing down peers for crucial information, like a sensitive list of specific employees from HR or a pricing approval from Finance.

2011 study showed that the use of pre-populated Federal Student Aid forms for college students significantly increased both submission and ultimately college enrollment.

Many other initiatives around the world borrowed this tactic, recognizing the power of “nudging” completion of a request relative to simply asking and waiting.

In the same spirit, the executive found that sending a pre-populated document with already agreed-upon information and a simple request to fill in the gaps dramatically improved his peers’ responsiveness.  Though this required some extra effort on his part, the reduced waiting time and tension made it worthwhile.


2.  A way to keep joint projects from stalling.

After initial buy-in on cross-functional projects, momentum often slows down. People can become reluctant to actually follow-through as planned.

So even when the executive sought to be inclusive, sending emails to peers like, “Are you okay with moving forward on this part of the project?” he had to stop progress to wait for a response, lest he look like a lone wolf.

The White House addressed the challenge of unpredictable participation when it implemented the Pension Protection Act of 2006.

Instead of waiting for people to opt-in, it automatically enrolled them into a retirement plan, offering the choice to “opt-out” if needed. Participation increased and the intended purpose of the Act was realized, setting a precedent for successful programs since.

The executive took this example to preserve forward momentum. He would instead tell his peer, “The ROI looks good on this project so I’m moving forward. If you have any objections, let me know by end of day tomorrow.”

Indeed some peers felt pressured by this approach. But most came to respect his momentum and clarity of urgency. They even admitted that it helped them get out of their own “analysis paralysis” and make a decision.


3.  A way to make sure peers share credit.

In the past, the executive and his peers had bad blood due to credit hogging.

Bosses want “team players” to never worry about individual credit. But career success always requires evidence of contribution, not just cooperation. This paradox often leads to mistrust of colleagues who seek recognition in their own reporting structure.

Could the executive change this to drive better collaboration? We found another example that sparked a potential solution.

Based on the findings of a 2012 study, the White House adjusted forms for vendors reporting rebates they owed the government.

To encourage more honesty, the signature box was at the beginning of the form instead of the end.

This simple prompt to commit their name early resulted in companies admitting extra rebates totaling $1.59 million over the three-month test.

Borrowing from this idea, the executive tried a similar tactic on joint presentations.

Instead of asking for his peers’  slides at every milestone, he sent them pre-formatted slides with a request to put their name, title and a one-sentence talking point summarizing their content.

When it came time to present, he observed that people who were covering someone else’s slides went out of their way to give proper credit.

Writing their name and talking points made them more aware and willing to recognize each other’s contribution when presenting to audiences.


Accept human unpredictability for better results

Motivating others around a shared purpose is a necessary part of great leadership. But when it comes to getting things done, particularly across the matrix of reporting structures, curious human tendencies can complicate a leader’s best intentions.

So when leaders accept these complications and creatively work with them, they are more effective.

Successful leaders recognize that inspiring others and getting buy-in is just the first step. Accountable results also require tactics that embrace the complexity of human nature.

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