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.

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Get Emotions Out, Then Get Them Out of the Way

What the hell just happened?

One minute, the project is moving along. The next, chaos. Some issue suddenly rears its ugly head and throws a wrench in progress. Whether this issue started as a known or unknown risk, a once happy team is suddenly stressed. Patience is frayed. Fingers are pointing. Blame is creeping in. The project issue is fading from view. The real issue now is the negativity of the team as “we” and “us” language turns more “you” and “me”. Emotional responses are taking over as morale slips. This ain’t good!

Emotions. Oxford defines it as “a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.” Emotions are reactions people experience in response to events and situations. When issues arise, especially in our business and projects, our emotions can immediately get triggered. It’s natural. Whether anxiety, fear, blame, anger, or combination, there will be an emotional response.

What I’ve learned is no two people’s emotional response to a situation is exactly the same. Whereas I can take a deep breath and say OK, let’s figure this out, someone else may panic. Others will go to worst-case and some want to talk it out in great detail. Everyone has their own emotional response.

Here’s what I’ll tell you; acknowledge yours and the team’s emotions and feelings. Though everyone responds different, you may find commonalities in the feedback. Let grievances air. Bring awareness to people’s perceptions. Then, get emotions out of the way and FOCUS on the problem!

I’ve had project and other business-related situations where there was a lot of negativity in the room. Emotions ran high and everyone was blaming everyone else. There was no collaboration or coming to alignment. Instead of letting emotions take over, the team had to be focused on the right thing, which was the PROBLEM.

Emotion vs. Problem Focused Coping. Emotion-focused coping can be appropriate when a problem can’t be solved and each person needs to regulate their emotional reactions to a stressor. For example, my friend called the other day to say he has cancer (thankfully, a very curable one, but cancer nonetheless). My reaction was sadness as he and I are the same age with kids near the same age, also. Since I couldn’t change the outcome, I asked what I could do to support him and his family. Then I went to the gym and sweat it out with some battle ropes.

But in business, venting emotions needs to happen quickly and then move on.  That energy needs to be saved for problem-focused coping. With problem-focused coping, the team confronts the stressor head on! Sorry something bad happened. Take a few minutes to get emotions out, then let’s solve it. The team works together to come up with solutions and takes action to eliminate it. These problems can be solved, so go solve them!

Leadership plays a large role during this time. Teams are looking for decisiveness and level-headedness from their leaders. Leaders have to bring the team from chaos, to problem solving, to solution. They understand how to balance allowing emotions to be expressed and then get the team to focus on the problem.

A former colleague of mine owns a small business doing network wiring for offices 4,000 square feet or less. Started in 2016, things were going good, until they weren’t. COVID cancelled or put on hold all contracts. Layoffs were probable if things didn’t change. He talked to his employees about the situation and naturally, there was sadness, frustration, and anxiety about the future. Once those emotions were out of the way, they brainstormed other ideas. Within a couple months, they were a successful home office wiring company. Through leadership and focusing energy on finding a solution, they were able to stay in business and are again thriving.

We can’t stop people from having emotional responses to situations. If you do, they’ll not like you for it. Instead, get emotions out, then get them out of the way. Problem-focused coping will help take that energy and find a solution to the problem you’re facing. Use emotions to your advantage!

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A Test of Leadership Skills

I was leading a team of 6. They were high energy and ready to get after it. With hammers and power tools within reach, everyone wanted to get to work. They talked non-stop. There were questions about everything within eyesight and earshot. When I could give instructions, one would listen, one would do the complete opposite, and the remaining 4 would follow the person doing the wrong thing. Nothing was getting done. It was complete craziness!!

I knew this was going to be a test of my leadership skills. It was also going to be a HUGE test of patience. You see, this crew of eager team members were kids between the ages of 9-13. We were building a set for an upcoming play. Our goal was simple; build the platform and walls for rehearsals that will be going on the next three weeks. No painting or finishing touches needed until one week before opening night. The kids just needed an elevated platform, stairs to get up to the platform, and three walls so they don’t fall off. Simple. But, not simple as you’ll read in the quotes I noted (yes, I did say these things to my happy little team members!).

There will be situations that test our leadership skills more than others. Sometimes it’s a large project we’re leading that runs into issues. Other times it’s building a set for a play with a bunch of kids. These tests can come at any time, so always be ready to engage your leadership superpowers. Here are a few tips to help.

“Can you ask your parents if you’re up to date on your tetanus shot?”

Be a Role Model, Because Everyone Is Watching You. As a leader, your team members look to you. Your attitude sets the tone for everyone else. If you’re overly excitable or anxious or quick to anger, your team will follow. If you’re calm, happy, empathetic, complimentary, your team will follow that too. Your team is watching you, so be a good role model! If you ever wonder how best to be a role model, just imagine a bunch of kids watching you and will mimic the way you act (because they will).

“Please don’t throw hammers at the plywood. They won’t stick. They’re not axes, and thank goodness we don’t have those!”

Stay Agile When Prioritizing, Keeping the End Goal in Mind. Leaders are clear about what priorities should be understanding there are times when priorities may shift. However, even though priorities can shift, keep the end goal in mind. Think of the projects or personal goals you try to achieve. Even though we make plans and follow them to the best of our abilities, things happen. When they do, we need to remain agile and pivot, understanding we have an end goal we’re trying to achieve. In our stage setup, we built the platform, attached the stairs, then went to raise the bigger wall which fell apart (see resiliency). So, instead we put the smaller wall up. A quick pivot and we moved on!

“I’m sorry I snapped at your son, but throwing screws in the air and swinging at them with a 2×4 like a baseball bat is a really, really bad idea.”

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. Good leaders communicate. But when times get tougher, communication becomes even more important. Give information to your team real-time vs. waiting for a regularly scheduled meeting (especially if those meetings are weekly or bi-weekly). Ask for feedback or if there are any issues or concerns so as to identify and mitigate risks as soon as possible. Be transparent and ask for transparency in return. Communication is a big deal! With my little team members, I gave continuous feedback and helped them understand how what they were doing helped them have more effective rehearsals, resulting in a better performance.

“Your mom said you can’t climb ladders” I said to one active little girl. “But, but my dad let’s me!” she said in response. “Well, I know your parents and even though your dad is easy-going, I’m scared of your mom. Get down please.”

Be an Active Listener. Listening doesn’t get the credit it deserves. You’ve probably heard the saying “don’t listen to respond, listen to understand.” Listening is a powerful tool and goes a long way with the people who are taking the time to talk with you. Ask questions to get more information about challenges or concerns. This is very helpful when your project has issues. Someone may have a potential solution they want to run past you first before going to the greater team. Listen intently!

“Please don’t put the drill in your hair and turn it on. It will pull your hair out by the roots.”

Emphasize Resiliency. The “big wall” was 8 feet tall and 12 feet long. I marked up the 2×4 boards where screws needed to connect everything. I told the kids to use the 4 inch screws. Unfortunately, they grabbed the 2 inch box of screws instead. When we went to stand the wall up, it fell apart. At some point, a project you’re working on will experience a setback, maybe even fall apart. Emphasizing resiliency helps the team bounce back and recover. It’s not an easy skill to obtain, so don’t expect everyone to bounce back the same way.

“WHERE DID YOU GET A BOX CUTTER!!”

Find Ways to Celebrate. Even though this 12 year old put a screw through plywood and missed the 2×4 on the other side, I still had everyone clap for them. This was the first time they’d ever used this tool and though nervous, was successful. Even in difficult times, leaders find opportunities to celebrate. They celebrate as a team, even if the accomplishment was done by an individual.

There will be times when our leadership capabilities are tested. Whether it’s at work with our professional teams, or outside of work with other groups, leadership is essential to success. What other leadership qualities would you add when you’re tested?

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So You Think You’re Good At Multitasking

A good friend of our family is an EMT (Emergency Medical Tech). Somehow, we got on the topic of multitasking. As she put it, if she loses focus and starts multitasking on things not directly related to a patient, someone could die.

That got me thinking, do I multitask? Hell yeah I do!! Every project manager I’ve ever known multitasks. And you know what? We all think we’re good at it!

But let’s be honest, no matter how good we think we are at multitasking, we’re probably not. Though it (hopefully) won’t result in someone’s death, there are impacts to ourselves, the team, and the project we’re leading. Below are some of those impacts. What others might you add?

Loss of Focus. Ever been on a call, mindlessly listening to the team talk while checking and responding to email, then hearing “What do you think [insert your name here]?” Damnit! Splitting your time and attention too much causes you to lose focus on tasks that are important and prevents them from getting done. When having important conversations, you can miss key messages or just say “YEP!” and commit to something you’re not able to do. Chunk out time to focus on one task at a time.

Oh Shit I Forgot What I Was Doing. If you’re trying to do two things at once and then a third and fourth item jumps into the mix, chances are something is going to be forgotten. Maybe you forgot where you left off on item #1. Or, you forgot about #2 all together. Some people are good at keeping track of where they left off. I personally am not. I know others who are even worse than me. If you multitask, you run the risk of forgetting something.

Discombobulation and Anger. One of the side effects of multitasking is overstimulation. Your brain is trying to take in a lot of information. Once it can’t process it all, you become confused, then upset. At that point, we’re prone to lashing out at team members or any other unfortunate soul who gets in our way (if you work from home, it could even be a loved one). When you start to feel that confusion and anger coming on, step back, take a breath, and focus on the most important task to get done.

Increased Stress Levels. Let’s be honest, even without multitasking our lives are stressful. By multitasking, we’re only making a stressful situation worse. Building on discombobulation and anger, if we continually overload our brains with too many inputs at once, our stress levels go way up and risk burning out! Don’t make your life more stressful that it needs to be.

Costs Your Project. If you’re multitasking, you’re probably not focusing on the most critical thing your project needs. Your project team may see you multitasking and do the same thing, thus not getting key tasks done. When project issues inevitably come up, if you and other team members are multitasking, you may not be as creative in coming up with a solution.

Let’s be honest, I can tell you not to multitask. You can read about why not to multitask. Tomorrow by 9AM, you will have probably multitasked a dozen times. We won’t stop doing it, but be aware of when you feasibly can, and when you should focus 100% of our attention on something important. Project managers multitask all the team. It’s in our DNA. But don’t allow it to impact yourself, your team, or your project.

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