Managing People You Don't Supervise: The Project Manager's Dilemma

February 24, 2020


A project manager is responsible for building and organizing the working processes around a specific deliverable. Distributing tasks and holding others accountable are significant pieces of the day-to-day work. Employees may naturally follow the directives of managers or supervisors because they have to, but project managers and aspiring leaders often have to find a different way to convince others to follow their lead.
While these can be difficult skills to develop, having the ability to manage people without authority can help propel your career towards a future leadership position. The trick is to figure out how to relate, inspire, and motivate people in a way that makes them want to cooperate and engage. Below are some tips for generating cooperation and engagement when managing employees that you do not supervise:

1. Learn how to develop and display empathy.

Having the skills to see other's viewpoints and feelings is a critical skill if you want to influence others. As a leader, it's important to absorb and consider perspectives other than your own. Once you're able to understand another person's viewpoint, you'll be better equipped to relate to their individual needs.

If there is a disagreement on a project or an employee is struggling with a deliverable, try to empathize with the person and consider the problem from their point of view when determining next steps. Dale Carnegie once said "success in dealing with people depends on sympathetic grasp of the other person's viewpoint." Having the skills to see viewpoints outside of your own is critical to influencing others.

2. Amplify success and encourage others.

A good way to influence others when you don't have authority is to show that you're invested in their success and appreciate their effort. Announcing achievements, acknowledging good work, and sharing credit among team members are all good ways to show you're paying attention and are thankful for the initiative.

Helping others to problem solve or mentoring new employees are also strong signs of a good leader and can help motivate those around you.

3. Clearly communicate goals and objectives.

A fast way to lose employee engagement is to set unattainable or shifting goals. By establishing clear objectives early in a project, you can allow your team time to build the framework for achieving that goal and ensure all contributors are working towards the same end result.

A skilled project manager should be able to clearly define goals and milestones as well as assign action items on a day-to-day basis, but they should also simultaneously ensure employees don't lose sight of the big picture or end result.

4. Gain Active Participation.

If you're managing people who don't report to you, then they must report to someone else. This means the people on your project likely have competing priorities. Each contributor needs to understand their individual responsibilities and how their role in the overall project.

As a project manager, you need to be respectful of each employee's timelines and project loads. Actively communicate with each team member and ensure that they are capable of meeting your expected deadlines. Be sure they understand their value and they know you're respectful of their individual workloads. By doing this, each participant will be more willing to cooperate and actively participate.

Additionally, hold one on one meetings with each team member and listen to their feedback or ideas. Each team member has a valuable perspective and can offer information on how to improve processes or achieve results. When a person feels like they are being heard, they are more likely to actively participate.

5. Motivate through Natural Consequences

As a project manager or aspiring leader, you probably do not have the authority to impose consequences. Furthermore, threats are generally not an effective way to motivate people.

Instead, help team members understand the reasons behind decisions and the natural consequences that would occur from not meeting an objective. By doing this, you are removing yourself from the equation and allowing the employees to see that they are part of a bigger picture. People are more motivated to take action if they understand that they are working towards a purpose, and not just executing tasks because the alternative is discipline.

You may think a lack of authority can inhibit your ability to motivate employees, but in reality, the best managers know how to lead without exercising authority in the first place. As a project manager, it is your job to create a working environment that motivates people to take action, ownership, and accountability. Ultimately, listening to employees, communicating outcomes, setting expectations, and properly motivating others are the keys to solving this dilemma.

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