Traditionally organizations have maintained a hierarchical structure. There was the bottom line customer facing or production worker and there would be direct lines to supervisors above them. Those managers would have directors or regional managers to go up to senior management and vice presidents. Organizational charts looked like a pyramid with the apex being the CEO. This not how things look today.
These days more organizations have org charts that look like a game of Chutes and Ladders than they do pyramids. The structure of the organizational hierarchy has lines that are direct reports and many as dotted lines. Dotted lines are unique because there there is some sort of reporting relationship but generally not a direct oversight. These types of relationships exist in the professional world because there’s simply not enough people within the organisation to maintain the traditional pyramid structure. In larger or distributed organizations direction comes from so many different vectors that it can be highly confusing. There are project managers, functional managers, team leads, regional supervisors, product line managers, etc.. the list can be endless and the names get ever more creative. Today’s professional may need to answer to all of these people who often will have conflicting priorities. It’s these conflicts that make dotted line organizations more complex, and depending upon your perspective this can be both a negative and a positive thing.
The challenges of working in an organization with several people and departments you are responsible for answering to is that there’s really no clarity to the structure. Decision-making can be fuzzy and slow because everybody has to be on board with whatever the initiative is before it can move forward with anything even closely resembling velocity. This lack of clear decision-making means that politics, and all of the negative associated with playing political games become part of the organizational structure. It stands to reason that if you have a hierarchical structure politics mostly ends at the next level up. In those situations with the boss says is what happens. The negative in these situations is that it’s much easier to get let go if there’s nobody specifically covering your back because of the soft values you bring to the team. If everybody has a bunch of different people they’re working with and somebody has to get cut it’s much easier for management to make that decision based on a spreadsheet then it is to make a value judgement centered in a personalized investment in the individual.
In some instances the dotted line based organization can be a great thing. This is especially true if you had several dotted lines that lead into your position. One of the reasons is because all of the people you report to know that you also report to other people so there’s much more camaraderie and cajoling then there is belligerence. In these situations you’ll hear more phrases like “if you get the time could you?”, or “Do you think you would be able to?”. The temperament of the leaders in these type of organizations tend to be more like the attitudes of manufacturers who go to market via a manufacturing rep organization. Rep groups are almost never beholden to a single manufacturer and they can spend their time as they please. Those manufacturers know that they have to cajole and incentivize the reps to get a disproportionately unfair share of the reps time and focus from the other manufacturers the rep is contracted with. It’s the old adage that you’ll catch more flies with sugar than vinegar.
Another benefit is that you can generally hide if you’re in a position you’re reporting to several people. When I say hide I mean you can really focus your energies on the things that interest you and do the bare minimum on the things that don’t interest you or for the people who you don’t necessarily want to support to the maximum of your abilities. In these types of organizations those supervisors who don’t have direct power to hire and fire really would have to jump through hoops to affect change in your behavior. More often than not your job is safe, at least for a while.
If people report to you through dotted lines, or you have to report to others via the same, then you should be very careful in how you address those relationships. A great example is when someone you perceive to have a dotted relationship feels that it’s a straight line relationship. If that’s the case, you’ll want to clarify that as quickly as possible for both you and the person on the other end of that line. If you don’t the problems are sure to escalate.
Dotted line based positions can be both a tremendous asset and a big liability. If your savvy you can use the dotted line as a valuable tool to make your daily work life more pleasant. If your too blunt with your use of the tool you can make enemies or become the nexus of a power struggle. If this happens someone with decision making power may decide that the easiest way to fix the problems is to eliminate all the lines by eliminating the person on the end of them.
Maybe the biggest advice I can offer on organizational structure is not about if the dotted line based organization is better, or if the straight line organization is better. I think the best advice I can offer is that no matter what your organizational structure is, you should learn to read between the lines, you’ll always come out the winner that way.