One of the first things you'll see when you're onboarding at a new employer, or perhaps even at the interview stage, is an organizational chart. Those charts serve a number of purposes, and one of them is to show who you'll report to and what the relationships are between individuals, teams and managers. The lines on the chart explain how those relationships are prioritized.

Org Charts Explain Structure and Relationships

Fundamentally, organizational charts are just a way to explain a company's structure and internal relationships through a graphic image. It's what computer programmers would call a "data visualization tool."

The actual appearance of the chart will vary, depending on whether it describes a traditional top-down bureaucracy, a more complicated matrix of interrelated teams or a relatively flat organizational structure. In each case, though, the chart identifies the important relationships that make up the company.

The chart tells you at a glance which employees belong to the same teams, and which managers they report to. Those teams make up larger departments, which report to higher-ranking managers, and so on. A CEO or potential investor might study an org chart to identify inefficiencies, for example, and refine the company's structure. If you're an employee, the immediate benefit of a good chart is that it tells you who you report to.

Lines of Authority

The boxes on an organizational chart might represent individual employees, ad-hoc working groups or formal teams or departments, but the lines always represent the reporting path for anyone in a given box. In a simple hierarchy, the lines run vertically from employees to managers and ultimately the CEO or proprietor. In a flat or a matrix structure, you're likely to see a mix of horizontal and vertical lines because managing authority – and therefore, your reporting – are more distributed.

No matter how your company and its org chart are structured, a solid line indicates who you report to directly. That's usually a single manager, though in some cases you may report to more than one. You may also see a dotted line on the org chart, and that's where things get interesting.

Dotted Line Reporting Definition

The broken line's meaning in an organizational chart is a less formal reporting relationship. The person at the end of that line isn't your immediate and permanent manager, but someone else. For example, your department or you personally might be assigned to do some work for a team or a manager in some other part of the company. You'll still have a solid line connecting you to your full-time manager, but now you'll also have a dotted or broken line connecting you to whoever's in charge of the other project.

This particular relationship is often referred to as "dotted line reporting." In theory, it means that these reporting relationships are secondary, but in practice, that's not always the case. It depends on the relative importance and urgency of your projects, and in some cases, to the strength of a given manager's position in the company's internal politics.

Reporting and Priorities Can Get Complicated

Juggling the requirements of multiple projects and the demands of multiple managers can potentially be a maddening scenario. In an ideal world, each manager would know exactly how much of your time is available, and how each of your separate projects ranks in importance. In practice that's rarely the case, and more commonly managers are focused on their own needs and priorities – that's what they're evaluated on – and won't understand how yours are divided. In a worst-case scenario, you might find yourself reporting to managers with conflicting priorities, or perhaps who even actively seek to undermine each other.

This doesn't have to be a nightmare situation, because managing your managers – proactively explaining the demands on your time and negotiating those conflicting priorities – can ease a lot of the tension. Your managers will have clarity about what they can and can't ask of you, and you'll have a better understanding of how to allocate your time and resources.

The multiple-boss scenario can even work to your direct advantage, if you approach it intelligently. You can't negotiate priorities with your bosses until you understand how their projects fit into the bigger picture of the company's operations, and you can't do it without building some kind of relationship with the managers themselves. Having a better grasp of the company's workings and effective working relationships with a number of your superiors can give you an edge when advancement opportunities arise.