Don't let matrix management exclude employee performance

Managers can track employee performance on big projects -- here's how

Dear Bob ...

Our IT organization has been growing and for the first time is using matrix management for some large projects. The team leader does not have any administrative control over the team members; they report to a different leader or are consultants.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Bob offers more tips on managing employee reviews in "Making sense of a feedback-free performance review" | Get sage IT career advice from Bob Lewis' Advice Line newsletter. ]

I can see that the leader is struggling with a lack of control over some of the team members, and the team members are having a hard time reporting to someone other than their administrative leader.

I'm sure this is a common scenario, just a challenge since it is new to us. Any ideas to help introduce everyone to matrix management?

- Projected

Dear Projected ...

The last guy who asked me about matrix management was trying to get Keanu Reeves to emote (not really, but just how snappy a lead do you think is possible when the subject is matrix management?). What you're asking is, comparatively speaking, easy.

I usually recommend a three-way conversation at the end of the project or project phase that includes the project manager, administrative manager, and employee, the subject of which is the employee's performance. The two keys to success:

  1. The conversation can't be a one-dimensional how good or how bad. It has to be a discussion of where the employee excelled, where he (or she) succeeded, where he pulled his weight but not much more, and where he needs to develop in order to avoid being a hindrance to the next project.
  2. Everyone involved in the conversation has to be mature enough to handle the subject matter without it sliding from a discussion of professional skills and performance to an inference of character.

The occurrence of this conversation should be set as an expectation at the beginning of a project, so participants understand how their performance on the project will turn into an accurate assessment of their performance on their annual appraisal.

The conversation should probably happen as often as employees receive formal performance feedback. If your company encourages managers to provide performance feedback once a quarter, for example, then these conversations should be scheduled as part of that process.

Your situation is complicated by the project manager's status as an outside consultant who might be reluctant to take the risk of damaging his relationship with your staff members by participating in such a meeting (and who might, quite reasonably, point out this is outside the scope of his current contract). Nonetheless, I don't see any alternatives. A conversation that doesn't include the employee strikes me as cowardly and would probably strike an employee as violating the legal principle of having the right to face your accuser (as it were).

If you didn't set this expectation at the beginning of the project, it's a bit more problematic, which means right now would be a good time to announce it, explaining it as a just-too-late idea that's better than not having it at all. Not doing it means reporting managers would have to assess employees' performance without knowing how they performed -- a far worse outcome.

My best suggestion is to explain the situation to everyone involved, letting them know when the first occurrence will take place. Since it's a retrofit, I'd suggest giving everyone at least six weeks to prepare.

One more thought: There's a good chance that, as first-timers, no one in your group will do this well, so you might consider sitting in on the first round to help facilitate proceedings and smooth over the inevitable rough edges.

- Bob

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