One universal leadership concern is how to manage employees without authority. What can you do when you are held accountable for results, but don’t have formal authority to hold your employees accountable?
I’ve worked in organizations in which this kind of frustration became so bad that managers resorted to fistfights. As you can imagine, these slugfests had the opposite effect. They stimulated cycles of retaliation and revenge.
The good news is that managing without authority causes leaders to focus on building commitment and engagement, rather than settling for obedience and compliance. Here are a few steps for managing without authority.
Build Mutual Purpose
Begin by identifying a mutual purpose
—broad goals that both you and your employees share. When I’m consulting, I often ask both managers and employees to write down their goals. Then they compare. They usually find that they share several of the same goals. At a broad level, these goals usually include “being competitive,” “making a difference,” and “keeping my job.” These principles create enough common ground to get started. They are goals leaders and direct reports can pursue together.
Focus on Two to Three Crucial Moments and Vital Behaviors
Identify the highest-leverage changes your team can make and focus on achieving them. Turn this process into a small-scale experiment that involves your team. Your team’s goal is to prove that these small changes produce big improvements that further your common goals.
Here are a few examples of crucial moments
and vital behaviors
used at a transmission plant:
• I will notice when my machine is not working and shut it down before it produces scrap.
• I will perform basic diagnostic steps before calling maintenance.
• I will take basic actions—clean sensors, replace blades, and reboot—before calling maintenance.
Jointly Remove Barriers to Action
Some employees may not want to act on the vital behaviors the team identifies. Or, they may agree to act on them, but then fail to follow through. When employees disappoint you in these ways, begin by giving them the benefit of the doubt. Assume they have a good reason, and ask them about it.
For example, employees in the transmission plant didn’t want to clean the sensors before calling maintenance. That surprised us, so we asked why. They responded with a lot of frustration and anger. It turned out that the coolant in the machines was black and gooey, and nobody wanted it to ruin their clothes. Our second question was, “Why is the coolant black and gooey?” The answer to that question turned out to be more complicated than expected, and solving the issue saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars, as well as improved the lives of the employees who had to deal with it.
More important, jointly removing barriers demonstrates good faith—yours and that of your employees. It also builds credibility and common ground. However, not every barrier can be removed. You need people to be motivated enough to overcome the routine barriers that make work, work.
Use Natural Consequences to Explain Priorities
Managing without authority means steering clear of your power. You don’t want to threaten to impose consequences—first, because you may not have the authority to follow through, and second, because you don’t want to be the reason the person does or does not comply. You want people to do the right thing because they understand and agree that it’s the right thing to do.
The way you motivate without authority is by explaining the logical reasons for taking an action. You explain the natural consequences—the logical results of taking or not taking the action. At the transmission plant, one of the natural consequences of cleaning the sensors themselves was that it would prevent at least one-half hour of down time. The employees already knew this, but weren’t especially motivated by it. They didn’t mind working longer days. In fact, they liked the overtime pay.
However, there were other consequences that were more motivating. For example, their department’s productivity was charted against similar departments across the organization and across the world. They were very motivated to show that they were just as productive as their colleagues in Mexico and China.
The best managers—even those who have formal power—do their best to manage without authority.
David Maxfield is the New York Times best-selling co-author of Change Anything and Influencer. Maxfield is also the vice president of research for VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance. The company has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained 800,000 people worldwide.