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Does dotted line reporting work? 9 pros and cons of blurring the line
I’ve been in a dotted line relationship. You might know it as being “matrixed.”
It’s a delicate type of relationship, one that needs quite a bit of care and attention. And truth be told, dotted line reporting is for every person or organization.
In typical line reporting relationships, employees report into a solid line. This means their direct manager is their only manager. In org chart speak, this means the employee has a solid line up to their leader. With a dotted line manager, an employee has a solid line reporting to their direct manager. But they also have a dotted line into another team.
But as we know, organizations are complicated. Some organizations use matrix organizational structures to improve visibility, alignment, and collaboration. Others might use it when headcount might be limited and budgets are tight.
Either way, companies are looking to maximize the potential of their workforce. So, some might be exploring the idea of a dotted line reporting structure for some of their employees.
Leaders have an incredible influence over the employee experience. Good leadership can translate into better employee engagement, increased productivity, a deep sense of belonging, and better business outcomes.
So, complicated reporting structures — including secondary managers — add a layered nuance to leadership. Hybrid work just adds a little more complexity, especially if one manager is physically present with the employee more often than the other.
As a management structure, dotted line reporting can be as fragile as it sounds. Let’s talk about what dotted line reporting looks like. We’ll also outline some pros and cons of dotted line reporting — and ways you can make sure it’s working efficiently in your organization.
What is dotted line reporting?
First, let’s understand what we mean by dotted line reporting.
What is dotted line reporting?
Dotted line reporting is a type of reporting structure. With dotted line reporting, an employee has a solid line manager. But in addition to a solid line manager, the employee also indirectly reports to a secondary manager.
The organizational structure starts to look more like a web instead of a flow chart with dotted line reporting. Let’s say that Julia is a marketing director with three direct reports. She’s hiring for a new role, a content marketer. This open position is 75% content marketing. But Andrew, another marketing director and peer to Julia, has asked for a part-time contractor for graphic design.
The company doesn’t have the budget to fund two separate roles, so Julia and Andrew decide that this person will directly report to Julia. But this person will have a dotted line back to Andrew for all graphic design-related duties.
9 pros and cons of dotted line reporting
Like most leadership tactics, dotted line reporting comes with its pros and cons. Let’s talk about some of the pros and cons for the employee, manager, and organization.
Before we tout the pros of dotted line reporting, it’s important to recognize that these aren't guaranteed. The pros will only come if this leadership tactic has been nurtured and developed well. Here are four pros of dotted line reporting.
- Efficient use of resources. Every company has experienced lean teams. When budgets are tight and headcount shrinking, dotted line reporting can be an efficient way to do more with less. With employees split across teams to get things done, dotted line reporting can be efficient (when done right).
- Increases delegation and collaboration. A direct reporting relationship is just that: direct. But if teams are cross-functionally collaborating, it might make sense to pool resources in a dotted line relationship. For managers, this might even help break down silos between teams. When done right, it can increase delegation and collaboration.
- Offers upskilling and reskilling opportunities. Sometimes, dotted line reporting structures give employees a chance to learn new things. Employees might be able to upskill and reskill, which can open the door for more opportunities.
- Helps with career mobility and development. One of the biggest pros that I’ve personally experienced from a dotted line reporting relationship was career mobility. Because I had a dotted line into a different manager, when a full-time role opened up on a team that I was interested in, I was able to go for it. That manager also had a sampling of what my work was like.
Because they had served as a secondary manager to me, they already knew my quality of work, work ethic, and how I delivered on projects. In the end, it helped me land a new job (and a promotion) in a previous company.
As someone who’s been a direct report in a dotted line relationship, it’s a tricky matrix organization to navigate. We’ve outlined five cons for dotted line reporting.
- Confusion and miscommunication. Dotted line reporting can be really confusing. A lot of the time, the employee is managing multiple workstreams from two different managers, one direct and one secondary manager.
Sometimes, the two managers aren’t communicating well, which can cause confusion for the employee. Especially when things move fast (as they typically do in the workplace), it risks gaps in communication that lead to confusion.
- Decreased productivity and efficiency. When employees are balancing different workstreams from different managers, it can be difficult. Without the right support systems in place, that confusion and frustration can cause a decrease in productivity. In the end, it could result in missed deliverables or missed initiatives.
- Tug of war over resources. As solid line managers or dotted line managers, you both have things that need to get done. But when you have a laundry list of things to do and one employee split across that list, it can start to feel like a game of tug of war.
It requires alignment on priorities, time management, bandwidth, and workloads. That way, you're not tugging the employee in two different directions.
- Damaging to the employee experience. Understanding the risks and cons of dotted line reporting, this structure has inherent consequences for the employee experience. If employees are in the middle of two managers vying for their time, it can be stressful and frustrating.
If employees are confused about what priorities they should be working on, you risk losing their engagement. Providing an exceptional employee experience is integral to unlocking your employees’ full potential.
- Frustration and burnout. For employees, it can be difficult to manage expectations and set boundaries. Let’s go back to that game of tug of war. If the employee is managing two different manager relationships, it can become messy.
Without alignment from the managers, it puts the employee in a difficult position. The employee needs to be really sharp on managing expectations and boundaries to navigate the reporting structure well.
10 tips for working in a dotted line environment
We’ve outlined ten tips to make sure your dotted line relationship delivers the leverage and visibility the org needs and the positive growth experience your employees want.
For the manager
Whether you’re a solid line or dotted line manager, there are things you need to keep in mind. Here are seven tips for sharing a direct report with someone else.
- Don’t put the employee in a game of tug of war. Putting your employee in the middle makes for a bad employee experience. If you’re playing a game of tug of war with the other manager over the employee’s time, it’s already negatively impacting your employee.
Disagreements or misalignments on priorities should be dealt with manager to manager in a dotted line relationship, not manager to employee. Your employee(s) — and your team’s performance — will thank you later.
- Communicate often with the other manager. Your employee is responsible for workstreams from two different supervisors. If you don’t know what sort of work the other manager is giving, that’s a problem.
Communicate clearly and often with the manager. You might consider setting up regular one-on-one meetings to make sure you’re discussing key priorities, workload, and other performance management things with the other manager. Lean on human resources for help, too.
- Align on priorities, time spent, and expectations from the beginning. Agree from the get-go on what the employee should work on, the expectations you have for them, and the allotted time.
It’s easier than you think for the employee to be overburdened with work from both sides. Make sure you reach alignment on key priorities from the beginning — and stick to them.
- Consider things like service level agreements (SLAs). Eventually, my solid line manager helped me to put together an SLA to help manage one-off requests. I wish I had put together this sort of working agreement from the beginning. It clearly outlined delivery dates, time spent on certain tasks, expectations, and priorities.
- Align on performance evaluations. Performance reviews will likely be conducted by the solid line manager. But sometimes, this will include input from the dotted line manager. Get clear on input for performance evaluations and what contributions will look like.
- Assemble your support system, too. Leadership isn’t easy. There’s a reason why it takes intention, effort, training, and practice to become a successful leader.
In many ways, it’s an ongoing learning journey that requires ongoing support. Think of how BetterUp can help equip your leaders with the support they need to navigate all the complexities that leadership brings. Investing in leadership development can be the difference between a thriving and flailing workforce.
For the employee
- Get a good understanding of your priorities, time, and expectations. As someone who has managed the tricky dotted line reporting before, it is not an easy thing to do. Make sure you get extreme clarity on your priorities. This includes understanding the amount of time you should be spending on certain projects over others. It also might include setting expectations with each of your managers (your solid and dotted) to communicate priorities.
But remember that priorities are dynamic. They shift and change often, which means you need to get good at continual clarifying, refining, and renegotiating. Build this renegotiating, clarification, and refining habit into part of your day-to-day.
If there’s a mismatch in expectations, ask your managers to connect. It’s important that your leaders work together to ensure alignment on how your time is best spent. This requires refining your time management skills to make sure you’re delivering on your priorities.
- Set clear boundaries. At a previous company, I was working in a fast-paced communications role. My dotted line manager often came to me with one-off, time-sensitive requests. These requests had hard deadlines that essentially forced me to drop my other priorities in order to meet the deadline. My other work — the majority of my job — suffered because of it.
Eventually, I set up a system where if I received a one-off request, I would complete the request in two business days. I had the backing of my solid line manager, which helped to reinforce this boundary. And eventually, it changed some behaviors. Over time, my dotted line manager gave me more time and more heads up. But it was really bumpy and caused tension between the three of us.
At the time, I wish I had a coach to help guide me through this situation. With a coach, I would’ve felt better equipped to promptly address these incidents and better set boundaries from the beginning.
- Communicate clearly and directly. Having a secondary supervisor adds layers of complexity to the manager and employee relationship. It requires intentional, direct, and clear communication among all team members.
For example, think about what objectives and metrics each of your managers care about. Get a good understanding of those objectives — but then good get at communicating frequently with updates. Good communication can proactively deter problems from arising. It also helps to make sure your managers know what roadblocks need clearing.
Especially with virtual teams, communication can fall through the cracks. Get really good at clearly communicating what you’re working on and what you’re prioritizing. You also have to communicate expectations, boundaries, and commitments well. If you don’t do so, you could risk damaging your relationships.
- Assemble your support system. As mentioned earlier, I wish I had the support of a coach while I was in a dotted line relationship. A coach could’ve helped guide me through tricky conversations, setting expectations, managing boundaries, and more.
Your direct line manager should be your foundation. Make sure you’re getting clarity on who is performing your performance review. If that’s your solid line manager, they are your key stakeholder. Keep that solid line relationship strong and lean on your manager for guidance, too.
Make unlocking the full potential of your workforce a priority
Dotted line reporting isn’t for everyone. It’s a tricky management relationship that comes with all sorts of nuances and complexities to navigate. And in order to make sure it’s working well, it requires the right resources and support.
How are you equipping your employees with the right tools to succeed? In what ways are you investing in your leaders to become the best versions of themselves? How are you making your people a priority?
Consider how BetterUp can help guide your people through their leadership and employee development journeys. With BetterUp, you can build a mentally fit workforce that’s one step closer to reaching its full potential.
Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.