In a perfect world, a dotted-line reporting relationship — where an employee reports to an indirect manager in addition to their formal boss — can be a boon for businesses, leading to increased sharing of knowledge and resources across departments or divisions.
“No longer is one person responsible for knowing everything,” said Kristen Fowler, SHRM-SCP, Vice President at executive search firm JMJ Phillip Group. “Assignments can be delegated to project teams with a better understanding.”
But that management strategy can also lead to tricky situations where employees aren’t sure which person to please — their informal manager who has immediate needs and deadlines, or their formal boss who signs off on performance reviews and bonuses. And in some cases, supervisors can behave badly, leaving employees to manage two competing personalities.
“If there’s not enough overlap in the view of the role between the two leaders that the employee reports to, a dotted-line structure can result in the employee being stuck between a rock and a hard place,” cautioned Terry B. McDougall, executive and career coach and author of Winning the Game of Work: Career Happiness and Success on Your Own Terms.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Adhering to some best practices when establishing dotted-line relationships can ensure that the arrangement moves both careers and companies forward. Here’s how.
The term “dotted line” comes from the lines on an organizational chart. The solid line points to an employee’s primary boss; a dotted line indicates a secondary supervisor. This management strategy can be useful in a number of scenarios.
A marketing director, for example, might report directly to the chief marketing officer and have a dotted-line relationship to the head of a company division that they support, McDougall said. In this case, the marketing director can ensure that the division is following the company’s brand guidelines. At the same time, they’ll understand the unique needs of that particular line of business, so marketing strategy isn’t developed in a vacuum.
Or, when an organization starts a large project, an employee may be assigned to part of it while continuing their usual tasks. Here, the individual has a solid-line relationship with their original boss and a dotted-line relationship to the project manager, said Alan Zucker, Founding Principal of Project Management Essentials, which provides project management and leadership training and consulting services.
In Zucker’s experience, the arrangement works best during short-term projects where employees have a start and stop date to the relationship with their dotted-line manager.
“Where it doesn’t necessarily work as well is where it’s a more fluid environment,” he said. Drawn out dotted-line relationships can force employees to juggle competing priorities, conflicting objectives, and time constraints as they attempt to answer to both of their managers.
To help guide decisions about dual-reporting relationships, McDougall recommends that HR departments develop policies that map out when they make sense. They must address an actual business need, she said, and not, for example, just assuage a stakeholder with a strong personality who wants more control over a project or team.
Both managers should be communicating regularly to ensure that the employee is never the go-between if disagreements arise. At the same time, employees who are assigned a dotted-line manager also must feel comfortable raising concerns, especially when they are struggling to respond to the demands of both managers.
“It’s important to step up and say, ‘I understand you would like me to do this, [but] this is the situation I’m facing right now,’” McDougall said. “Just lay the contradictions [between the managers] on the table and ask for guidance.”
For employees who may be reluctant to speak up, a buddy system where they are paired with a peer can help. When problems surface, they can check-in informally with their peer to hash out their concerns and get some advice on whether and how to raise the issue with management, said George Mazzella, CEO of The Suite, a private career management platform and network for executives.
In addition to developing policies to determine when dotted-line arrangements are appropriate, HR also should coach managers on how to supervise an employee together, McDougall advised. That begins with an agreement on what each manager will expect of the employee, she said. It also includes allowing the secondary manager to provide input into the employee’s performance review.
“Training on how to be a good dotted-line manager should be mandatory,” said McDougall. HR departments could even curate a list of managers who understand dotted-line management and have done it well, she suggested.
Without final say on bonuses and performance reviews, it can be difficult for secondary managers to motivate their dotted-line reports. But there are other incentives they can use to encourage good work, Fowler said. For instance, demonstrate that they’ll get exposure to other areas of the business or individuals who could accelerate their career.
“Show the additional skills an employee can learn that will lead to long-term success,” she said.
Don’t fall back on dotted-line reporting simply because an employee in another group has a few hours to spare each week. “If you’re using this, make sure you’re using it for connecting and better communication,” advised Mazzella. “If you find you’re doing it for the sake of doing it, stop and really reassess the business need.”
If it’s creating a power struggle or other obstacles among teams and employees, it might be time to take another look at your organizational chart and make some changes.
“You have to fix it,” Mazzella said. “The culture can go toxic.”
Sometimes dotted-line relationships don’t work out, or, as projects and teams morph, it becomes clear that the dotted line needs to change to a solid-line arrangement. Be ready to adjust and restructure just like with any other management strategy, Zucker said — and be open to hearing the concerns and criticisms of those you work with.
“You’re going to know that it’s time to make changes when things aren’t working,” Zucker said. “Your people will tell you if you’ll listen.”
When done right, with an investment in time and resources to build policies and productive relationships, employees with dotted-line managers will gain new understanding and expertise across a company, helping it thrive, McDougall said.
“The solutions that come out of that are going to be richer,” she said. “And, frankly, the people who are successful in [these] roles can become really, really valuable within the organization because they can look at things from a different perspective.”