How to Have Authority as a Project Manager

How to be responsible with your authority

You may not have direct authority over your project team, yet you absolutely need your team to listen to you to get the project accomplished successfully. There are many different ways managers can use authority responsibly. Learn the right way to demonstrate authority with your team.

Before you were scheduling your projects and managing your team, you had many other roles. Do you remember your first job? I mean your first job ever, not the first job after you got out of school or the first step on the career path you currently enjoy. Maybe you worked at a restaurant, movie theater, skating rink, or somewhere else perfectly suited to you as a teenager.

Whatever it was, you  punched the clock and got to work doing exactly what they asked you to do. You really didn’t have to put too much thought into it, because you always had someone telling you what you were doing right or wrong.

Your biggest concern was making sure you were there on time and where you were going to spend the extra money coming your way each week. You hadn’t yet heard of financial statements, projections, board meetings, deadlines, sales quotas, status meetings, or other overused corporate buzzwords. You were carefree and loving every minute of life!

Now, think about your project management job today. I would venture to say that things have changed drastically! Gone are the days of just being able to show up on time and do as asked. You now concern yourself with forecasts, projections, schedules, meetings, risk management, communication, contingencies, and a host of other project management duties. There is no such thing as responsibility-free project management and you can testify to that every day you go into work!

Responsibility without Authority?

What makes responsibility-free project management even more challenging is that most project managers do not have direct authority over their resources. Project managers are provided with a team that does not report to them directly; rather, they report to a functional manager responsible for compensation, rewards, direction, and even admonishment and negative feedback as necessary.

This puts the project manager in the position of having a ton of responsibility with no authority. Can this work? Yes, but before we discuss how it can be done, we need to understand the different types of authority that exist in a work environment:

  • Positional Authority: This is the type of authority that is based upon someone’s job description. For example, the title of Vice President gives someone authority over others in his or her department.
  • Expert Authority: This type of authority is based upon the level of expertise and knowledge that a person has in comparison to others. People will defer decisions to the expert.
  • Penalty Authority: This is the darker side of authority focused on punishing people or taking things away if they don’t follow directions. This type of authority is less than ideal for most situations, but does have its place in certain environments.
  • Referent Authority: This is the ability to influence others through power or authority transferred from someone else. Most project management authority begins with referent authority and morphs into other types based on the individual project manager.
  • Reward Authority: This final type of authority is based upon the ability to provide people with rewards to keep them motivated. This may include the ability to give raises, time-off, favorable employee reviews, and similar positive experiences.

The project manager that understands responsibility-free project management is not possible will implement the type of authority appropriate for the circumstance.

What Makes Authority-Free Project Management Challenging?

There may not be responsibility-free project management, but there is unfortunately authority-free project management. A project manager may be put in a position where they have all the responsibility and very little, if any, authority to get things done with a team.

Newer project managers find it especially challenging to get things moving with no authority. They find that they need to beg, cajole, persuade, and remind their resources that they need to get work done in order to finish the project. Seasoned resources may disregard or discount a newer project manager who has little or no ability to reward, punish, or dictate what needs to be done. Plus, the fact that they haven’t been around for very long usually disqualifies them from being considered an expert that everyone can put their faith in. These facts can put a newer project manager in a tough spot.

How Can You Get the Most out of Your Resources without Direct Authority?

What are some things you can do as a newer project manager that will allow you to get the most out of your resources? The following are some suggestions:

  • Establish Your Formal Authority through the Project Charter: The project management position is around for a reason: work wasn’t getting done, and someone needed to be in the middle of things to keep everything moving. The project charter formalizes the role of the project manager and provides them with the authority to get things done.As a PM who doesn’t believe in responsibility-free project management, you are not going to wave the project charter back and forth and say, “See, this piece of paper says you have to do what I say!” That would be career suicide, or at least put you in line for performing free project management somewhere else while you look for a new position.Rather, the project charter should give you the confidence you need to step into the shoes of a project manager and be responsible for the success of a project.
  • Explain the Big Picture:  Start out each project with a team meeting to outline the big picture. Make sure everyone knows that they are not doing this for you as the project manager, but rather for the sake of everyone on the team and company as a whole. They will be more apt to buy into the importance of the project and follow your lead (aka authority) to move the project forward.
  • Make Work Easy to Track:  Another recommendation when you have responsibility over people without authority is to make the work that needs to be done almost self-evident. Break activities into small enough chunks so that it makes sense to everyone why they need to be done. This avoids you being in the position of checking up on everyone at all times to make sure they understand what they are doing and when they think it will be done.
  • Review the Open Task List Frequently: Part of each status meeting should be to openly review immediate next steps and who is responsible. This instills a sense of accountability in team members when everyone realizes that others are dependent on the work they turn out. Doing a good job during the time allotted shows respect for others and the project as a whole. This allows the project to move forward, and you don’t have to harp on people to get certain things done.
  • Maintain a Strong Relationship with the Project Sponsor: It’s important to maintain a strong relationship with the project sponsor, so that if all else fails and a resource cannot be convinced to do something by someone without direct authority over them, you have options. This is a relationship to keep in your back pocket and pull out in only the direst of circumstances.

It is true that responsibility-free project management is impossible. You’ll never have the carefree days of your first job again, but that hopefully goes for the pay as well. However, you can still wield an incredible amount of influence over people that are on your team for the sake of closing each project out!

Keep team members up-to-the-minute by creating actionable project reports in just three clicks! Report out on all the tasks in your project plan while you include the actual vs. planned progress to date. The professionals on your team will appreciate this type of information and move you into the category or expert Project Manager in no time at all. Try ProjectManager.com and you’ll be able to positively influence everyone on your team.

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