Leader’s Pulse: Navigating Dotted and Solid Line Reporting

It’s helpful to be able to identify the types of reporting relationships within the workplace

In an office workplace with  reporting relationships there is a sense— if not a clear delineation— of who the more senior person is, or the person being “answered to.”

But being too conscious of the reporting structure can warp a relationship. It can deplete the possibility of a collaborative nature, in which both employees can build a healthy sense of exchanging information and ideas with another person at work. Similarly, ignoring, or underutilizing a dotted line report, might not only diminish a relationship but negate the possibility of great work alliance.

How do you build a relationship with the person you report to?

In simple reporting structure some years ago, I had a wonderful boss— his name was Bob (it really was).  Bob was great at what he did. He was also gifted at teaching and motivating others. In our relationship there was an extra twist: I was taking over his work as he moved onto another role in the company. In our situation, he was particularly motivated for me to learn well and preferably, to learn quickly. I remember one day while we were working together he asked me if I could stop treating him as “the boss.” I remember trying to pretend that I didn’t know what he meant, but I did.

Before this happened, I would be nervous around him, I also sometimes would freeze up and not be able to think my best. I would get self-conscious and in a sense, I would effectively mentally stumble. So when he said that he wanted me to stop treating him as “the boss”, I knew exactly what he meant. Looking back, I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, but I do remember the result— I dropped as much of the self-consciousness as I could. Eventually, I ended pretty much losing all of it. I started working with him, not for him. It is amazing how much one tiny preposition can help make such a significant mental shift and how that shift improved our relationship.

So how do you build a relationship with the person you report to? What happens in a matrix reporting structure when you have a “solid” line report to one person and a dotted line report to someone else?

What is the difference between a dotted line and a solid line report?

According to Wikipedia, a  solid line report is defined as a direct reporting relationship, implying usual objective setting, supervisory, and performance management relationship that a manager has with direct reporting.

The relationship between two roles in the structure is direct.

Now some years later, I have not only one person I report to but, two. I have a solid line report to one person and a dotted line report to another. What is a dotted line report? At its most simple interpretation, a dotted line is another relationship, and another dynamic to figure out. One simple way to handle that relationship is to think of your dotted line report as a secondary person you report to and treat the relationship accordingly. Take note, in a matrix reporting structure, there can be many dotted lines between individuals, enough to make a matrix organization look like a state highway roadmap!

Learn to work with someone, not for someone

However, since I believe in working with someone more than for someone (thank you Bob for teaching me this), a dotted line should be viewed as another opportunity for collaboration. A question I ask myself is how can I help this person? I look for past experiences to share, books or articles I think may be relevant to a conversation and if there are actual follow-up actions I can do to help that person (which helps us).  On the flipside, I also ask myself, how can this person help me? Focusing on possible ways of exchange helps dissolve the reporting structure, and opens the door for a more collaborative rapport.

When it comes to reporting to someone, perhaps it’s better to think in terms of relationships, instead of thinking of having or being the boss. Some years back, Harvard Business Review published an article called “The People Who Make Organizations Go—or Stop” the focus of which was the value of informal networks in an organization. The article also shared the concept of connectors; those people who tend to link others in an organization. I now see this as a skill, and an important skill particularly in some roles. I used to dismiss this method of getting things done or getting information as somewhat “greasy” networking. Now I see this as valuable, essential and yet elusive. You cannot force a relationship— you have to build each relationship. And over time, I’ve learned the best way to build a relationship is to continually offer a value—whether that’s information, a helping hand, or just another point of view. It’s about sharing whole-heartedly. The same article refers to boundary spanners, people who connect with other parts of the company and this is where I think real power, influence and insight can be gained as well as shared in turn.

Learn the value of making connections within your organization

Another way to think through work relationships (and not just reporting relationships) is an exercise I learned from a book called “Territorial Games” by Annette Simmons. It

suggests that you take a pencil and paper and draw a map of how you see yourself in an organization. At the time I read the book and learned about the exercise, my primitive drawing revealed to me a view of myself as an island with no connections or kinship anywhere in the organization I was working. That drawing was an eye opener. (I’ve discussed this in a recorded presentation called Building Alliances.) I knew after seeing that drawing (if not before) that I was not in the right place. It was a situation after which I realized that while I might have responsibilities in an organization, it is best to never be too alone— to instead build a network, connect with others, help other people, and hopefully some people will in turn, help me. I learned the value of connecting with other people and over the years learned that some of the best connections at work can be with my boss, whether that reporting line is a solid line or a dotted line.

Thinking of relationships like this helps me as well when I may function as someone’s “boss” hoping instead of a hierarchal focus that we can build a relationship of mutual respect and open the possibility of true collaboration and professional rapport and not focus on any of the lines of reporting— dotted or solid.


Karen N. Johnson is a longtime active contributor to the software testing community.  Her work is often centered on helping organizations at an enterprise level.  Karen’s work is often focused on helping teams and organizations improve quality overall. Her professional activities include speaking at conferences both in the US and internationally. Karen is a contributing author to the book, Beautiful Testing by O’Reilly publishers. She is the co-founder of the WREST workshop, the Workshop for Regulated Software Testing.  She has published numerous articles; she blogs and tweets about her experiences. Find her on:

Twitter: @karennjohnson



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