When you don’t have the authority to manage
What’s happening? Navigating thorny work situations
Hello, we are Kate and Lori. Once a month or so, we pick a thorny work situation that’s rarely talked about, share our perspectives on what’s happening, and what you can do if you’re caught in the same situation.
Today’s workforce is more project-based. To achieve certain goals, you need to orchestrate multiple departments to work on different parts. For instance, a product manager needs to work with engineers, designers, data scientists to decide on product direction and feasibility; a salesperson needs to interact with product , customer success, finance and legal teams to onboard a customer.
Few things are more frustrating than being responsible for leading cross-functional projects but struggling to make people do what you want them to do. Have you painstakingly created material to be read prior to a meeting, only to realize no one read it? Have you created detailed action items and a timeline, only to realize no one took action? Have you tried holding co-workers from other departments accountable, only to realize they aren’t spending any time on it? As companies grow larger, more global, and evermore complicated, dotted line relationships figure prominently. In fact, we’re at the mercy of those dotted lines. Throw in some office politics, and you could have the recipe for a train wreck.
So how can you manage if you don’t have the authority? If these cross-functional, matrixed organizations aren’t going away, is it possible to live peacefully and productively within them? We believe so.
How to Begin
Let’s start at the top. If you are a founder, CEO, or other leader, make collaboration part of your vocabulary and use it frequently in written and oral communication. Consider listing it as one of your company values, but define it so it comes to life, e.g. Make an effort to help your colleagues. OR Do what is best for the whole company, not just what is best for yourself or your team. Create a culture that recognizes and publicizes when employees truly live this value.
Even in the smallest of organizations, collaboration can go sideways quickly when people don’t fully understand their roles and responsibilities or that of their co-workers. Before a project begins, arrange a meeting with ALL of those involved in the project to communicate:
Reason for the project and the expected outcome(s)
Roles and responsibilities
Process map (including decision-makers, especially at hand-off points)
Milestones and timelines
Centralized method of communication with turnaround times defined
If this information is only communicated to department leaders originally, and they’re left to convey the information downward to their teams, much confusion can occur due to differing perspectives, understanding, and emphases. Anyone remember the telephone game? Best to have everyone in the room to hear the same information and to have the ability to ask questions. If you aren’t the leader, then ask your manager to hold this meeting and explain how it will aid in making the process run more smoothly.
Throughout a project, it would benefit all involved to invite co-workers from other departments to meet with your team. They could discuss their specific roles and answer any questions you have. Consider using that time to highlight what is going well. Also discuss any obstacles and how to overcome them. The key is to make this a collaborative discussion, not to make the invited co-workers feel like they’re on trial. This is about “us” not “us vs them.”
Ask your manager or the respective department heads to highlight milestone completions and those involved in completing them. Show people they’re valued in how they played a part in moving a project forward. Even if you’re just a dotted-line manager of this project, you can still highlight these things, either to the whole team or to individuals. Humans love feeling valued. Recognizing their value is a form of positive reinforcement, and it will motivate co-workers to continue working hard.
The key is to sincerely express recognition and gratitude. This will almost always result in a better outcome than yelling, scolding, or threatening.
Say you’ve established the process, but you’re still struggling to get people to do what they say they’re going to do. Focus on building relationships. People like doing business with people they like. When we’re only focused on what we ourselves need to get done, co-workers will turn into a means to an end that either move us closer to our goal or act as obstacles. We need to attach faces and personalities to those we work with. In our remote, digital world, how easy is it to rip off an angry comment or communicate your disdain for someone’s idea if you’re doing it on slack or in an email? Or how easy is it to just ignore someone’s messages to avoid confrontations? Now hold a video call or in-person meeting with that person, and suddenly we become more well-mannered and kind in our responses. That’s because we see the person.
Before you kickstart the project, be very clear when making requests. Co-workers may ignore your requests, because they aren’t fully aware of what you’re asking for or how long it will take them to complete. Concisely state what you need, any context or data that may be helpful, and the impact that the completion of the request will have (relate it to the bigger picture). You’ll increase your chances of them fulfilling your request if you ask things like:
Do you need any additional information to get started?
Do you have time for this? If not, can you recommend someone else who could help?
Is there anything I can do to help this get done on time?
Throughout the project, become curious to build relationships. Seek to know your co-workers. Studies show that when we ask questions, we’re seen as more responsive and likable (i.e. people want to interact with us). Resist the temptation to judge co-workers by assuming you know what they’re thinking, how much work they have, or why they act the way they do, especially if you’re frustrated with them. Ask them what they have on their plate and where your request falls on their priority list. Don’t be afraid to ask them what it would take to move your request higher up the priority list.
Consider creating unofficial happy hours with your team, or even ship them wine or other beverages to make it more fun with a team-building budget. Humans are relationship animals; feeling connected is everyone’s basic need.
Tell the Hard Truth
If you’ve tried everything, and your co-worker just isn’t cooperating, it’s time to provide them with feedback. A previous blog post outlines our ABC feedback formula. It might look something like this:
“Jack, I know we all have a lot going on, but I really want us to hit a home run with our Product X. We’ve been made aware of our timelines, and I’ve asked you what you have going on and what it would take to complete your part of this latest step. You aren’t getting your part done. As a result, we’re all falling behind. I can’t finish my part and Sales & Marketing are being impacted as well. My manager is breathing down my neck. If we miss this milestone, all of our bonuses will be affected too. Can you help me to understand what the hold up is and how we can resolve this? What, if anything, can I do to help?”
If feedback doesn’t help either, then we recommend that you escalate the issue to your manager. Provide your manager with context, including all that you tried to do to resolve the issue before resorting to escalating the situation.
Managing a dotted-line relationship or a project-based team closely resembles the broader social dynamic we face every day. Since ancient times, humans have formed groups and created projects organically because of common interests and shared goals. By taking on the challenge of managing without the structured authority, you’re closer to mastering the art of motivating others. We’re cheering you on as you take this journey!
Next post: You’re exhausted sitting in meetings for hours at a time, unable to get your real work done. So many of them are a waste of time. A pet peeve is around decision-making: everyone feels they have a vote and veto power, so nothing gets done. There are meetings about meetings, and you’re over it.
Thoughts? Suggestions? We read every reply, and will probably answer and share the top ones with the entire group.