how to manage work when you don’t have authority over the people doing it

As challenging as managing people can be, managing work when you don’t have formal authority over the people doing it can be even more challenging. Managing sideways – or influencing the performance of people who don’t report to you – takes special thought.

At Intuit QuickBase’s Fast Track blog today, I talk about four keys to assigning and managing work when you don’t manage the people who will be doing it. You can read it here.

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. LBK*

    Re: #1 – Benefit language helps me so much with this. I try to always explain not just why I want a task done, but also how it will help the person I’m asking, so it seems like they’re doing themselves a favor instead of just me. Sometimes a little self-deprecation helps too, e.g. “I get easily disorganized if all the files aren’t saved and named the same way, so if you get any please just forward them to me instead of saving them yourself. That will help me put the deliverables together faster and more accurately so you don’t have to spend as much time reviewing them.”

  2. Aunt Vixen*

    Also, be sure it’s your business to “manage sideways”. Sometimes, people who don’t report to you … don’t report to you, and making like you’re in charge of them or their work doesn’t create efficiency as much as resentment.

    Not that this has ever happened to me, or anything.

      1. Aunt Vixen*

        Less snarkily, though, I do have a colleague who is my exact equal (not senior to me in any way), who has had to be reminded (by management) that we are peers, but whom I do sometimes have to remind that I can’t do my part of a shared task until colleague’s part is done in a particular way that the task-tracker can recognize. (Version-controlled documents don’t check themselves back in, y’all.) So it does go both ways.

        1. Mallory*

          I have a colleague like this, too! She is very slightly junior to me, but she is indiscriminately bossy*: up, down, and across the ladder.

          I was terrified, when a position parallel to mine opened, that the head of that department was going to hire her — which would mean I’d have to put up with her for every minute of the day instead of in small doses (we are in a suite where other two admins and I sit right next to each other in a common area). The annoying colleague is in a completely different suite down a completely different corridor, so my contact with her is blessedly limited.

          I later confessed to the other dept. head that I’d been worried about him hiring her, he said, “Hell no!” because he finds her officious and overbearing, too.

          * I’m reclaiming the word “bossy” to mean what I’ve always thought it meant: overbearing and officious in a non-gendered way. NOT to refer to women in particular or to anyone who is being assertive in a non-officious way. There is a difference.

  3. Ama*

    I’d actually been considering writing in asking for general advice on this very subject. I’ve recently been put in charge of testing a certain area of development at my company, though my position itself hasn’t changed (just increased responsibility in general), and the only “report” I have is a coworker and not a subordinate. Things have been going really smoothly so far and I really have to credit all of the reading I’ve done here with making it easier for me to adjust to the responsibility.

    The only concern I have left is making sure the division of work isn’t unfairly loaded on me or him. We both are pretty comfortable with our respective workloads, though, so I guess that’s going well too?

    Sorry I don’t really have much to add. I’m just excited to see this article!

    1. Karowen*

      +1
      I’ve been struggling with this so hard for almost exactly a year and it never occurred to me that there was even a term for it, never mind tips on how to do it. Thanks Alison!

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Division of shared work: This may or may not be applicable to your setting- but I have had a couple times where I have done a preemptive strike on a potential situation by making an agreement of what to do before the situation happens.

      In this case of shared work, I have said to the coworker – “hey tell me when you are getting back logged and we can reconfigure so that your work does not get backed up. Then I can do the same with you, if I feel myself falling behind.”

      Depending on the workplace, I have even gone as far as saying “if you wait until you are angry to tell me there is a problem, then you have waited too long. Just tell me what’s happening, as soon as you realize, instead of waiting.” This works well in work places where people spend a lot of time snipping at each other. I have little patience for snipping especially when all that is needed is for someone to say “hey,there’s a problem here”.

  4. Legal jobs*

    The only way it worked for me was with the approval of an executuve above the manager or the manager buyin regarding his or her participation

    At the current job, that I am winding down, I’m reminded more and more of the importance of the top down support bc I do not have it in the current company.

    The result is that I’m subject to a toxic situation in which its incredibly hard to get projects done.

    I don’t believe the benefits aporuach works again unless their buses says it is important that they comply.

    As long as they don’t believe its mission critical to comply and there are no consequences or accountability for failing to comoay, most managers won’t.

  5. Malissa*

    I would have loved to have read this article about 8 years ago. Instead I had to figure this out by trial and error. I will say that after 7 years of managing sideways I was doing everything this article says.
    Also never forget to give credit where it is due. Praise and credit from a coworker is some times more powerful than if it came from the boss.

    1. Dwight K Shrute*

      Agreed. I have started getting into the habit of thanking coworkers for going above and beyond and ccing their manager on the praise. It is such a small thing, but I have noticed my relationships steadily improving. There was indifference before, but now people go out of their way to work with me.

  6. KellyK*

    One thing that I would add is that it’s important to distinguish (at least in your own head) about asking someone for a favor and asking someone to do their job. If you’re asking for a favor, then it might be appropriate to offer one in return. (Not necessarily always or exactly “tit for tat” but if someone helps you get something knocked out before you go on vacation, you should probably offer to do the same for them.)

    1. fposte*

      I also can have a hard time telling when it *is* their job, but I’m taking up an inappropriate amount of their time compared to their other obligations. Mostly this is with people I have good relationships with, so I can say that outright and ask, but if people have tips for how to figure that one out, I’d love to hear them.

      1. KellyK*

        Yeah, I can’t see any way you would know that without asking. If you’re coworkers with the same boss, asking their boss might be an option too. (I’ve asked our mutual boss if it’s okay for me to remind coworkers to do XYZ, since I don’t want to come across as if I’m assigning them work. I didn’t get an actual *answer* so I can’t really tell you if it’s a good strategy or a bad one!)

        1. ArtsNerd*

          I definitely ask my coworkers about this all the time, since about 60% of our workload gets passed back and forth between departments, we’re all overworked, and I don’t have a staff of my own (and frequently borrow theirs for small projects where it makes sense.)

          The phrasing Alison suggested is pretty spot-on. If I have a hard deadline, I’ll say “I really need this done by x date. Do you have any concerns about being able to complete it in time, and is there anything I can do to make it easier for you to do so?”

          If they’re more flexible, I’ll just say “When do you think you’ll be able to get to this?” or “Can you have this done in two weeks?”

          1. ArtsNerd*

            Because it’s part of the job, they don’t balk at it.

            Similarly, if they ask me to do something that’s going to take up a ton of my time, I’ll break it down into more reasonable deadlines. “I can have X for you by Y, but Z might take me a month or more.” Or “This is going to be very time-intensive. How high of a priority is it?”

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I think that if I have to ask repeatedly then I am just asking someone to do their job. Recently, I needed X. I asked once. “OK, it’s in the mail.” When I did not get it, I asked again, “Yeah, I forgot to put it in the mail last time, but I will do it this time.” The item never came. Third request- “I don’t understand how it got lost in the mail but I will send more to you.”
      It was six months from first request to actually package in the mail. I had put the request in email so you would think that would be a bit of a reminder. Silly me.

      But there are other people that I just know, they have my back. Not that they will cover for me, but they will point out an error and allow me a chance to fix it. Likewise, I would do thoughtful things for them. Perhaps I’d help them for a short time to get through a mess or similar- it just works into a reciprocal relationship.

      I think it boils down to the awareness level of the person you are working with. When a coworker shows little awareness of what is going on, what is needed and what I am working on THAT is when it morphs into I am asking them to do their job.

      Sometimes people are just plain too busy and that is a totally different story.

  7. Scott M*

    I have to admit, this really bugs me. Maybe it’s just my personality, but I can’t stand all the “dotted-lines” In today’s org charts.

    Why should someone have to manage another person they don’t have authority over? It just seems so… messy and inefficient. I know the idea is to be more flexble and get things done faster. But all the confusion and negotiating over authority would seem to make things worse, not better.

    I prefer strict top-down hierarchy. The boss tells me what to do and I do it. If other people want me to do something, I may be able to accommodate them if it’s a small request, but mostly they should go to my supervisor and he makes the decision if I do it or not.

    I know its the difference between the way the world is, and the way I wish it would be. But still, I can’t believe I’m the only one who has trouble with this setup.

    1. Malissa*

      Because I don’t want to have to go to your supervisor every time I need a tweak on your TPT report.
      I should be able to ask you to do it directly as a coworker. Maybe because I need the TPT report to come out a certain was so I can add my notes to it before forwarding it to the Bobs for their review.

      1. Scott M*

        A ‘tweak’ would be a small request that could be take care of quickly (I’m thinking 15-30 minutes). I’m thinking more along the lines of a major request.. taking hours or days of time. If my boss has a deadline I’m expected to meet, and your sideways-managing gets in the way of that, then it’s a problem. It’s not you fault. It’s just unfortunate that someone has assigned you to manage my time when you don’t really have the authority. And probably, you aren’t’ the only one who is telling me what to do.

        The real problem is that these sideways-managing conflicts aren’t resolved by the managers. The effort falls on the person being managed. Then you have a widget-maker who can’t spend time making widgets. Instead they have to negotiate between managers to figure out what they should do first.

        1. Malissa*

          Ah, okay I see your issue now. I totally get what you are saying. What happens most of the in a sideways managing situation is that it is at the request of the boss. Such as, “Hey your the team leader, deal with it.” Or you’ve been given a project to manage that requires input from 5 different coworkers and it’s your job to make that happen. It’s also the coworker’s jobs to do what you ask.
          Sideways managing is getting the project done with-out having to rely on your manager telling Susie exactly how to do their job.
          Sideways managing because you don’t think your coworker is doing their part or needs to share your work load, or whatever lame excuse is a whole different beast.

    2. KellyK*

      Yeah, I can see that. It does simplify things. I think it makes the most sense when a supervisor isn’t managing tons of people. If you’ve got thirty direct reports, then having to assign every single thing they do is going to get really cumbersome. It also helps if you have people who have pretty clearly defined job functions.

      1. Scott M*

        Well, in that case you have a “Lead” or “Senior” report who has explicit authority over groups of that thirty. And then the person external to that team goes to them instead of the manager.

        1. Judy*

          I think that is what mostly this is about, if you’re a senior person who has “peers” working on project for you. But in the end, the manager has the evaluation/vacation approval/hire/fire authority, even if someone is given to the lead to work on X project, then they don’t really manage them. The manager has to back the senior people up.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Because sometimes someone is in charge of a project that involves people from multiple teams. Or from your own team, when you’re not the manager of your group. And when it’s a one-off thing or fairly occasional.

      1. Scott M*

        But when you have a project that involves people from multiple teams, there should be explicit authority granted to the team leader.

        It could be your boss saying “I expect that this project will take up 80% of your time. If it ends up taking more than that, then come to me and we’ll figure something out. Treat the team lead as if they were your manager. Your performance on this project will affect your year-end review. ”

        Then the team lead has actual authority over you and you are clear on what you need to do.

        Instead, often you get people with this vague authority over you, who make ‘requests’ that you aren’t sure how to fit in your workload. You have to gauge the importance of the request based upon a million different variables (that you really aren’t equipped to deal with) including office politics, the requestor’s importance in the company, relative importance between other projects and their leaders, possible negative blowback to you, and your own varying stock within your team/company as of today.

        Gives me a stomachache!

        1. Scott M*

          Oops, Allison, I think I’m getting unnecessarily stuck on the term ‘manage’.

          Yes when dealing with a coworker on a one-off item, your points make sense. You need someone to do something this time, but you don’t manage them. So your advise on how to get them to do it without authority makes sense

          My rant was focused more on larger long term processes.

    4. Legal jobs*

      You are right. It is a sign of bad top down management. The thing is that these practices are rarely occurring in isolation. When I started to experience the issue of side ways management, several business friends suggested that I take a look around the company bc its likely that executuve management team is making poor decisions in other aspects of the company.

      Sure enough, a lack of accountability pervades the company. In some instances, the inefficiency may be unavoidable, but the reality is that too often it was really just a sign that the company or department is being poorly managed and the employee will need to watch his or her back regarding accountability bc it is likely that no one is taking ownership until a failure.

      Example: there was a compliance issue about which lower ranked employees were neither trained not made aware. When an employee made a mistake in addressing the issue across departments, the executuve management response was to fire her bc no one in management wanted ownership of building the complance program and thr policies were “common sense” according the managers firing the employee.

      The need for side ways management often comes out of poor management decisions like this.

      1. Anon5*

        This is the way I’ve seen it. Management pushes off responsibility onto those that have no power or authority to get things done and those employees are given the title Project Manager, despite not being allowed to manage anyone. Management then has a built-in scapegoat for when the project fails, runs over, whatever, but if the project succeeds then the manager gets the credit for being a great manager. All of the rewards and none of the risk, who wouldn’t want that?

        Despite numerous documented instances of things not getting done due to X, Y and Z issues with other departments/people being brought to management’s attention, it will still be framed as somehow being the Project Manager’s fault for not getting people to do extra work. In some cases management will simply assign people from different departments to report to the Project Manager without checking with the manager of those employees or even notifying the employees of this change, so the first that someone hears of you being their Project Manager is when you talk to them about the project. This does not engender goodwill. When this repeatedly happens and all voiced concerns about this method are constantly ignored, pooh-poohed or become a reason to label the (faux) Project Manager a troublemaker or poor-performer it is time to go to a new company. Upper management will never step in and correct this system as that would show that the manager is at fault/doesn’t know how to manage and then the inmates would be running the asylum.

        It then becomes easy to blame the constant turnover on bad apples that couldn’t cut it (look how badly they screwed up Project X), than a bad manager, no matter what the level of turnover. I’ve seen one manager have almost 200% turnover in their time with a company (less than 10 years) and upper management keeps making excuses for this exodus. This is not in industry with high turnover but they like to brag about how they’re proudly dysfunctional and these quitters simply can’t cut it. No mention is ever made of why hiring isn’t tailored to fit this unique niche, because that would be shining the spotlight on the poor management and we can’t have that.

      2. Elly*

        Oh thankyou for this post. This is my exact situation. Poor top down management. In my case when I reported specific failures in the process to management the response is always to blame a junior employee instead of fixing the process AND tell them that I complained so that they resent me instead of the manager who is actually responsible for the whole mess.

    5. Greg*

      I get what you’re saying, but that doesn’t work in today’s workplace. Top_down structures are frequently too rigid to respond to changing circumstances. If everything has to go through the boss, lots of stuff won’t get done, or will lead to bottlenecks.

  8. krm*

    This was really timely…I have a coworker who is new to the industry (she has been with my company for almost a year). The way our organization is structured, we both report to the same managers, but we are considered equal on the org chart. In order to do my job, I rely on her to set up files in a specific way, depending on the situation (I know this is vague, but I don’t want to get in to too many details, as I have friends and coworkers who read this). The problem I am having is that she is not doing this well. If something doesn’t meet a pre-defined set of criteria, she doesn’t know what to do with it. She doesn’t understand our industry enough to be able to fill in the blanks and figure out how to set up and categorize the file. She has been given a lot of formal training, and I’ve tried giving her “cheat sheets”, I’ve tried addressing specific situations as they come up, but I’m at a loss as to how to help her improve. I spend a lot of time correcting her mistakes, and my deliverables suffer as a result. I know she feels like I am nitpicking, but I really do need things to be done correctly. I don’t want to go to our manager and tell him that she isn’t doing her job well, but I am at the point that I feel like that might need to happen.

    1. SallyForth*

      This is so tricky. If you over-remind, it could be seen as overstepping your job description. It is difficult to walk the line between collegial encouragement and full out “just get it done NOW!”

    2. Jillociraptor*

      This is a really tough problem, because probably to her, with limited information and context, she just feels like everything she does is wrong, and it’s so hard to explain what feels to you like obvious logic.

      I wonder what would happen if she were able to see the full lifecycle of what she’s creating–what you do with the files once she’s done with them, and where they go from there. Maybe that would help her to build up her mental “flow chart” that would help her decide how to structure her files. This is a problem I run into a LOT when people in earlier phases of the process don’t understand what happens when their product gets handed off, and I’ve definitely had the experience of going from working on earlier phases to later phases and thinking, “OH! THAT’S how that happens? Now it all makes sense why [we have these guidelines/I kept getting that critical feedback I didn’t understand/I got so many weird questions I thought I had answered/etc]!”

      1. krm*

        I’ve mentioned to our manager that I think it would be helpful for her to see the whole process, as I really don’t think she knows what happens after she hands off the file. I think this would be so helpful, and I’ve asked for it to happen a few different times, but she never seems to have to time to do this, and I can’t force it to happen.

  9. rr*

    I’d add a fifth one: your shared boss (if managing sideways) or someone above in the food chain HAS to have your back.

    At $LastJob, I ran into this problem constantly when I had to run projects. I was the most junior person in the office, although the other people hadn’t been there more than a year longer than I had, some less than six months. No one would do anything I asked them to. I was running a project that some of my coworkers were on, the boss told me he’d support me. I would have meetings and discuss and kept a project problem and tried to get people on board and… nothing would happen. They wouldn’t do the work. I had to do everything in the entire project.

    When co-workers would run projects, I’d do my part in theirs, so this wasn’t a case of me not holding my weight. I’d go to my boss to ask for help and tips in getting people to do what they said they would, or just all of it, my boss would promise support and then… nothing would happen.

  10. Jillociraptor*

    This is all great. It’s remarkable how hard #1 is. I manage a bunch of different internal communications processes for my team (~180 members) in which different staff members can submit requests for action for the whole team. It can be a really big struggle to get content developers to tailor their messages to the people they want to take action. A lot of the content ends up looking like: “Do this thing because it is important to my team” (or worse: “Do this thing without any specifically stated rationale”) as opposed to “If you do this thing, it will help you achieve X result that is important to your team.”

    It’s also so important to do good relationship work: develop good working relationships when you’re not asking for anything, honor your colleagues’ contributions to your work/the project, share how their support helped to create the final product, and return the favor by being a good partner to them when they inevitably need your support. Goes a REALLY long way to cultivating goodwill and interest in helping you out.

    I worked on a project last fall that required me to get input and collaboration from members of my team on extremely tight turnarounds. Like, urgent, red ! emails every day, at the pace that new information was coming down to me. Literally my worst nightmare. But because of all the relationship work I had done by being a good steward of their time in the past, people were so understanding, even those who are at much higher title bands than I am.

  11. cofax*

    I had a nightmare with this for several years. I ran a program and I needed someone who didn’t work for me, but for our mutual boss, to prepare documents and coordinate with outside parties. But she just… wouldn’t. Not when I explained why, not when I was nice, not when I was clear, not when I cc’d our mutual boss on the tasking email.

    It became clear to me after a while that she put a priority only on work that was assigned down to her by management, not on work that came in laterally (either from coworkers or from someone outside the organization). I actually began receiving calls from people outside our group who were frustrated with their inability to get her to do things that they needed done in order to perform their own jobs properly. I told them to contact her/my manager directly, but it didn’t matter. Because she had been here forever, and she knew exactly who to please and who she could not only ignore but actually undercut. She’s been here for about a decade, and nobody has ever actually managed her.

    In the end, they cut my program and I was laid off. And a year later, I got hired back as a contractor in a slightly different role. And now she needs me to do things for her, and I just smile and smile and smile… (And yes, I’m a professional, and I do my job.)

    (I could tell a bunch of stories about her, like the way when someone sends her a Word document, she prints it out, scans it, and then forwards it on to me as a PDF, so I can’t edit it and must OCR or retype it all by hand. She even does this with multi-colored maps.)

    1. Editor*

      Can you email the original sender of the document and tell them you’ve received the pdf of the document from (pain in the neck admin) and you’re wondering if there is a Word version you could have — can they send it directly? Or would that put her into nuclear mode?

      1. cofax*

        No, because when she prints out, scans, and emails the attachments, you don’t get a forward of the original email, you get an entirely new email with no history. So no way to email the original sender. Which means asking her for the contact information, which she sits on, because (I assume) she doesn’t want anyone else contacting people.

        I wish she were an admin: she’s a professional, but one who trained herself to protect her position by undermining everyone who could possibly threaten her position. She’s particularly hard on other women–including friends!–but doesn’t confine her resentment to them. Recently a male colleague took some training in an area she considers “hers” and she cut him dead. Won’t speak to him, won’t give him information, etc.

        I actually think she’s got a pathological version of Imposter Syndrome: she’s so terrified of anyone finding out that she doesn’t know what she’s doing, that she spends all her energy protecting herself from anyone who could discover her secret, instead of actually getting her work done. It looks exhausting and miserable.

  12. Former Professional Computer Geek*

    I got into a miserable situation once where I was directed by my supervisor to “manage” someone (call them Bob) running a project I needed to work with, but Bob worked for another supervisor. It was flaming hell.

    I would go to Bob and say, “My Supervisor (MS) says we need to make X, Y, and Z the priorities.” Bob would say, “I understand that, but *My* Supervisor (BS) wants A, B, and C to be the priorities. Then X, Y, and Z would be delayed, and MS would write me up for poor performance. When I told MS that I couldn’t control what Bob does, I was yelled at. When I had an off-the-record discussion with BS, I was told that BS was furious at MS trying to usurp the project.

    It all came to a head in a meeting between the four of us. MS kept trying to tell Bob what to work on. BS kept telling MS that s/he was not Bob’s boss and that BS would set the priorities for the project, not MS.

    In the end the project crashed and burned, and its failure was a reason I was given for being fired.

    I’ve never been sure how to explain this (should I ever have to) in a future job interview. “I was fired because I was part of a project that was the lost prize of a battle of two nitwits” probably isn’t correct, but it’s what I always want to say.

    1. Legal jobs*

      I have an interview tomorrow with a company based on a meeting with a recruiter.

      It is funny you mention how to frame bad experience bc I am having to do the same thing without being negative.

      I think if you practice giving enough context in interviews without going negative the circumstance can speak for themselves.

      The side ways management issue came up with the recruiter and I simply explained the processs with editorial. When she asked about why I was leaving I said that they are phasing out the role in the company. When she asked “were you not the only counsel performing all the tasks?” I said yes. She finally said “I don’t understand how they will function with out counsel, do you?” My last comment was “all that I can say is they says they are ending the role for business reasons. ”

      Ultimately you are selling yourself not the prior employer so let them read between the lines is what was suggested to me

    2. Christian*

      I had a similar problem in my first job. I was in market research and should produce statistical results for our team.
      When I begun, my company decided to replace a huge multipurpose analysis software with their own web-based solution which could be used by the team directly, instead of going through the analysis team.
      They choose me to commincate between the developers, statisticians and the team – but I had no formal power to guide the development but had to report to the CTO instead.
      Unfortunately, they completely underestimated the size of the project – replacing that tool simply ate manhours like mad and we had only two developers on call. Also, the team was totatlly unhappy because several important analysis steps where not possible with the new software – and telling customers industry standards are “not possible” was not an option.

      I pointed out, that we headed for disaster, but the CTO wanted a success – so he ordered the development of maybe 10% of all necessary features. I could not control which ones and most of them where needed anyway – in the end, the team was angry, because I prevented them from doing their jobs and the CTO was angry because I jeopardized his pet project…

      I left the company shortly afterwards, will the software was still in Beta (and still is, two years later)…

  13. Greg*

    One other point I’d add: if you’re a job seeker, this skill is one employers will always value and frequently ask for. So you should be able to cite examples of times you successfully managed cross – functional teams. The good news is, it’s something you can talk to even if you’re early in your career. Hell, even a school project can be a good example. Just emphasize what you did to keep the team on track outside of any formal leadership role.

  14. bh*

    My problem is the opposite. My manager is missing most of the time and has a strategy of stalling and questioning until I give up. We are cross trained in many areas so we know how things are supposed to work, so we’re expected to simply “handle it”. But I’m not paid to manage, so I resent that. When I see problems, it’s my nature to see them corrected, but I’m in an environment that doesn’t want to hear complaints even when they affect customers.

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