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5 Tips for Managing Without Authority

How to get people to commit without having to chase

Managing project teams

One of the biggest challenges that project managers face is managing people without authority. Whenever I start a training session or a workshop I ask people what their biggest challenges and roadblocks are. One of challenges that almost always comes up is how to manage people who don’t report directly to the project manager – or rather, how to get people to do work without constantly having to chase.

Are you facing the same issue? Do you work with people from different departments – or from different locations – who don’t report to you directly? Do you find that you constantly have to chase to get work done and that it’s time-consuming and tiring – and sometimes even degrading? People commit to doing a task when you ask them, but when the deadline arrives they still haven’t completed it. You don’t want to micromanage people, but you don’t know what else to do.


1. Why don’t people do as you tell them?

At the most fundamental level, people fail to carry out the task you give them either because they feel more obliged to attend to someone else’s work or because they find that other work is more rewarding and interesting. To up your task on the priority list you need to strengthen trust and commitment between you and the team member, and ensure that they find your work interesting.

Some project managers are of the opinion that it isn’t their job to motivate team members to do what they are being paid to do. But remember that even if people are being paid a salary for doing a job, it doesn’t mean that they are fully committed. As Dan Pink points out in this video, people aren’t as rational and logical as we would like them to be. If you want people to be more committed, you have to create a stronger psychological bond and you have to make your tasks more appealing.


2. Focus on building trust

Let’s look at the value of trust for a moment. Trust is the unquestioned belief that another person have your best interests at heart. It’s a belief, which is built and earned over time by listening, sharing, asking questions and by ‘walking the talk’. Without trust it’s impossible for a project to function effectively as people are unlikely to open up, collaborate and follow someone who they feel they can’t rely on. When you work with people from other departments or team members who are located remotely, trust may be relatively low because not enough time has been invested in building the relationship.

The good news is that you can build trust where it is lacking by being honest, fair and open and by showing empathy. Get to know people on your project – even if they don’t report to you or if they work remotely. Find out what makes each person tick. Ask them what they like the most or the least about their job and see how you can use that to strengthen the bond between you and make the assignments you give them more interesting.

Consider what you would do in your private life to build a trusting relationship with someone. You would take an interest in them as people. You would ask how they are doing and engage in activities that matter to both of you. You would show empathy and be understanding to the challenges they face. And when trust is there you feel more committed to one another. We tend to not want to let someone down who we have a strong relationship with. Your job is to build that kind of relationship with people you work with. You don’t have to become friends or bend over backwards to please them. That’s not what this is all about. It’s about building a professional relationship of trust based on honestly, empathy and clearly agreed responsibilities.


3. Give people enough autonomy to carry out their work

According to Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory, one of the main drivers that motivates people is autonomy – or the desire to be self-directed. People don’t want to be tightly managed or told what to do. They want to feel appreciated and have the autonomy to decide how to do their work. This is even more true of younger generations who are used to a collaborative approach and who want to understand why something has to be done.

As a project manager you won’t be able to give people ultimate autonomy, but you can give them some autonomy. Instead of micro managing people and telling them how to do a task and by when you want it, lead by objectives and outcomes. You can do that by agreeing what needs to be done rather than defining how to it. Mutually agree what “good” looks like and how you will determine if the task has been completed well. You could say that this becomes the quality criteria of the task.

Once you have established these criteria, agree to a mutually acceptable timeframe and how you will be measuring progress along the way. Let people know that you don’t want to be breathing down their neck but that you do need some milestones or control points to keep track. In this way you can mutually agree to what needs to get done, by when, and how you will be communicating and checking progress along the way. At the same time you empower people to find the ‘how’ – something which takes courage as people may have their own unconventional ways of working.

Make sure that it isn’t just you driving this conversation. Determining the outcomes of the task and how you will be communicating and checking progress along the way needs to be mutually agreed – as you would with a friend. If you’re in doubt about whether you are truly on the same page, ask people to play back to you what you have agreed – either verbally or in writing. Assuming that you understand each other can be dangerous. It’s much better to check before a misunderstanding occurs.


4. Involve people in the definition and planning phases

A great way to build trust and to strengthen commitment to the project’s goals and tasks is to involve people in the planning process. Some project managers feel that because planning is their responsibility they have to do it all on their own. But what a missed opportunity that would be for engaging the team. When people are involved in defining and planning the project they understand why the project is important and what their role is in making it happen. Involve the team in the kick-off, get their input on roles and responsibilities and on the project’s milestones.

Oftentimes, we only involve the core team in the kick-off, but to strengthen commitment from peripheral team members, it would be wise to include them as well. If for some reason it isn’t appropriate to include everyone, organize a secondary kick off with the extended group. What’s important is that everyone feels involved and has a say. Have you ever been on a project where you were kept in the dark about the bigger picture and who was doing what? I have been in that situation, and it wasn’t very nice. It can be very demoralizing to be told to just do a task in isolation without understanding why it really matters, what the impact is if it’s not completed and who the other parties are. We all like clarity, and as a project manager you are in an ideal position to provide that.

Consider how you normally kick off a project and go about planning it. Do you tend to do it on your own sitting behind your desk and by talking to people individually? Why not have a planning meeting instead where everyone participates? You can spend the meeting brainstorming everything that needs to get done on ‘post it’ notes and subsequently collaborate on the product breakdown structure and jointly create a milestone plan. That is certainly a more engaging approach than if you do it all on your own.

At the same planning workshop you can discuss who owns each milestone and deliverable and what the target dates are. This approach creates more transparency across the project and strengthens buy-in from all parties. In addition it provides a baseline that can be reported on. Imagine sending out a milestone report with responsible owners for each milestone and indicating if it is status is red, amber or green. No one likes a red milestone to be circulated if their name is against it. You get the picture.

5. But what do I do when my team is remote?

You may be left feeling that this sounds all well and good but that it all becomes a much bigger ask if your team is located in different countries or time zones. You are right. It’s much more difficult to engage people who aren’t located in the same building as you – but it’s far from impossible. To engage remote team members you have to put even more emphasis on building strong relationships. Set up a video link. Get to know people by having informal conversations on the phone. Involve them in the planning phases. Agree outcomes and milestones but give them sufficient autonomy to carry out their task and determine the “how”.

If you want to know more about leading virtual teams, why not listen to Peter Ivanov’s interview on Leading Virtual Power Teams.


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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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