Influence Without Authority

Congratulations, you’re a Project Manager! You’re accountable for getting a project from initiation to completion. You’re responsible to get your team to do the work. But, your team has been assigned to this project and does NOT report to you! You have ZERO positional authority! YEAH!! Now don’t screw up.

Influence without authority. This has been an ongoing paradox for as long as the project management profession has been around. A project professional is tasked to take a group of assigned individuals (sometimes who are unhappy to be on the project), and turn them into a dynamic team who deliver business value.

Authority comes with a job title. People will dutifully follow their managers or those in authority. If not, they can find themselves without a job! Project managers, however, need to be able to influence their project teams without having formal authority. This has been a long-standing issue. We (almost) never have authority. So, how do you get a project team member to play nice on your team and get their work done?

Influence is the ability to have an effect on the behavior of someone or something. In this instance, that someone is your project team member and the behavior is them doing the work when they don’t report to you. It’s not easy and takes time. But, it’s worth the effort!

The following are five tips on influence based on lessons I’ve learned throughout the years.

Who are you as a person? As project professionals, we’re geared for action! As soon as we’re assigned a project team, we want to jump right into planning and progress. That’s all well and good, but would also challenge you to get to know your project team members as people.

I learned to make it a priority to meet with as many team members as possible and get to know them. What do you do for fun? Kids. Weekend hobbies. This can be over a cup of coffee (in person or virtually), lunch or a beer. Understand their background and ask questions about how best to work together. This builds trust and relationship capital. Yes, it’s time consuming, but it’s an investment that’s paid off. If your team is too big to meet with everyone, identify who the lead for a specific group is and meet with them.

Understanding the Big Picture and how each member contributes. “Why the hell are we doing this project and why am I on it?” I’ve heard it asked lots of times when people were told they were going to be on a project team. If your answer is “Um, well, you see…” you’re going to lose them!

Every company has a strategy (if it doesn’t, well, good luck). To realize those strategic goals takes projects. Team members are more motivated when they know the project they’re working on contributes to a greater purpose. So, be able to tie the corporate strategy to the project, and how each individual team member contributes to that big picture. Being able to clearly articulate this will help you influence team members, especially when there is greater demand on their time.

Recognition. Whether they say it or not, team members want recognition. Sometimes they want it done publicly, others privately. In any case, as the project leader, you can help build the team member’s brand and influence them by giving the proper recognition for their efforts.

For example, I had a sharp technical lead on a program I was leading. She could take the most technical speak and communicate it in a way everyone understood. She was my right hand and success would not have been possible without her. But, she never wanted public recognition. Ever. I was to never highlight her contributions in meetings or written status reports. However, I did talk to her functional manager and others in one-on-one conversations, praising her efforts and abilities. At the end of the project, she was promoted.

She was one example of someone who didn’t want public recognition, but recognizing her in a one-on-one capacity with her boss and others created visibility and built her brand. Others will want more public recognition. Be careful here, though. Remember you have a whole team doing great work. Be sure to highlight everyone’s accomplishments.

Clearly define roles and responsibilities. You can’t influence someone to fill their project role if they don’t know what it is. If you hear the words “I don’t know my role”, you got a problem. I take it as a personal failure not clearly defining and articulating the roles and responsibilities required to make the project successful.

I’ve written before about identifying roles first, assigning people second. Once people are assigned, it’s deflating to team members when they don’t know what purpose they serve on the project. If they don’t know their purpose and responsibilities, how would they be motivated and influenced to do great work?

Communications! This goes way beyond me talking or writing stuff down. You want to be able to influence your project team members, you’ll need good communication, including:

  • Listening: This is an underrated skill in my opinion. Listen to understand. Devote your attention to whomever is talking to you and ask questions.
  • Be Descriptive: “We need to get this done by EOD Friday” may get the point across, but may not be the most effective. Instead, be descriptive and say something like “We need to complete this task by Friday so the next group in line can start first thing Monday.”
  • Outcomes Instead of Actions: Team members want to know what they should accomplish, not told how to do the work. As a project leader, I get work done through others, so I talk about what we’re trying to achieve and let those smart than me figure out how.
  • Identify Different Communication Channels: Everyone communicates differently, so don’t approach every project and team the same. Allow for 1:1 conversations, small group discussions, and large team meetings. Talk about how best to communicate with me and others. You can’t influence team members by having one approach to communication. Have multiple.

Influence without authority is hard, time consuming, and tough to measure if you’re successful or not. But is it worth it? Heck yes! As project professionals, this is a skill we must acquire and continually hone. Very few of us will ever have authority, so we need to work on our ability to influence.

Success! You're on the list.

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