How to Manage Work Without Formal Authority

Last updated: October 28, 2021
Estimated reading time: 7 min


A reader asks:

“Managing staff members is hard enough, but at least the roles are clear! What about when you have to manage projects and don’t have formal authority over the people doing the work? I tend to just let them know what I need and then hope for the best. Is there another way?”

Influencing the performance of people who don’t report to you—or “managing sideways”—requires thoughtfulness and deliberate communication.

Effectively managing sideways involves some of the same practices you would use when you’re managing direct reports: setting up clear roles and responsibilities, being clear about the desired outcomes, checking in on progress, and so forth. But when you’re managing sideways, it helps to take extra care in how you approach your colleagues with each of these items. Here are six tips for doing it well.

1. Build the relationship.

When you’re managing sideways, it’s especially important to build and sustain strong relationships—because it’s really the strength of your relationship that predicts the success you’ll have when assigning work to peers, checking in on progress, and inspiring accountability. The core principles of relationship-building that should guide managers (authenticity, trust, navigating power and difference, and shared purpose), can also guide you when managing sideways. You won’t have the same positional power, but you should still acknowledge lines of difference, seek diverse perspectives, and invest time upfront to learn what the other person has going on, what motivates them or discourages them, and what they are excited to contribute.

2. Communicate roles clearly.

When you’re delegating to a peer, it’s easy to inadvertently miscommunicate about roles and decision-making power. That can lead to situations where, for example, your colleague assumes they are the ultimate approver for the fundraiser webpage content you asked them to create when, in fact, you’ll be making the final edits before anything goes public. If you want to avoid making them feel undermined, you need to make roles and responsibilities explicit. Using TMC’s MOCHA model to clarify project roles, you might say something like, “Could you own getting all the content together and building a draft page by [X date]? Once you have proposed content, I’d like to sign off and might make some changes before we finalize it because there are some tricky nuances with donors that I want to make sure we navigate. In our MOCHA, you’ll be the owner and I’ll be the manager/approver.”

3. Constantly share the “why.”

While you should always explain the larger context—the “why”—when you’re delegating to a staff member, it’s especially key to do this when you’re delegating sideways. As a peer, your requests will go over a lot better if you contextualize them and explain their importance. For example, in pulling someone in to help with a last-minute email alert, you might say, “We just learned about this today and if we can generate grassroots calls by tomorrow morning, we have a real chance of bringing the bill up for a vote before the legislature adjourns for the year.”

4. Don’t hide the ask.

Sometimes when people feel awkward about managing sideways, they soften their requests to the point that the other person doesn’t realize what’s being asked of them. For instance, you might need a draft of a report by March 15 so that the final can go to the printer by March 25. If you say, “It would be great to see a draft around the middle of the month, and I’d love to have it to the printer by March 25 if we can,” you won’t be conveying hard deadlines at all. Your colleague might justifiably think you have more flexibility than you do. Make sure they are clear about deadlines, constraints, and other relevant factors. And yes, that might mean being more directive than you’re used to. Just remember that being kind and direct sets them up for success, and reduces the chance of misunderstanding. Use our Delegation Worksheet to think through the context, constraints, and information you need to share with your collaborators.

5. Check in regularly.

Projects are always evolving and questions surface, so you’ll need ways to make sure work is on track and plans get adapted as needed. Just like managers and staff members have regular check-ins, you will too. Communicate this at the outset of a project, and identify the best ways to engage as the work moves forward. You can do this by:

  • directly checking in about how the work is going at regular meetings
  • reviewing a “slice” of large projects as they progress
  • reviewing data indicating progress toward the desired outcome, such as a monthly report on progress toward a fundraising goal or a weekly report on ticket sales for an event you’re managing, and/or
  • seeing the work firsthand, such as joining your colleague on a lobbying visit or sitting in on a training session.

For instance, you might say, “I want to be able to adjust our marketing plans if ticket sales are lagging, so could we plan to touch base each week about ticket numbers?” Or, “I’d love to get a better feel for how the training sessions are playing out. Would you mind if I sat in on an upcoming one?”

6. Act with confidence—or acknowledge the awkwardness.

If you feel uneasy about any of the above—assigning work to a colleague, asking to see slices or do progress checks, etc.—it will probably show and make the encounter (and possibly the relationship) awkward. Acknowledge any awkwardness you feel. Being honest will build trust and rapport as long as you aren’t overly deferential or apologizing for leading the work. For instance, you might say, “I realize this is a little weird because I’m not your boss, but I’m on the hook for this piece of work, so I’ll be checking in with you about its progress the same way I might if you were on my team.”

Always reflect on any bias that might be coming up as you manage sideways, such as who you feel more/less comfortable working with, and openly talk about lines of difference that shape your perspectives or approach to the work.

How Do I Say It?

Below are some sample lines you can use throughout the work cycle when you’re managing sideways. In all cases, make sure that your tone is both assertive and respectful.

Assigning work

  • “I’m on the hook for getting YYY done by the end of the month, and I’m hoping for your help with…”
  • “Could I pull you into…”
  • “Given your work with X, I would love your help with…”

Arranging a check-in on the work

  • “I am excited to see your progress on this and it will help me to keep a birds-eye view of the work. Let’s plan to check in every other week. How does Friday work for you?”
  • “We’ve learned in the past that X has really impacted people so we want we be extra careful with our message and timing. For that reason, I’d like to touch base on your draft before it’s final.”
  • “In the past it’s been hard to communicate exactly what we’re going for with this type of document, so I’d like to look at it before you send it out—not to micromanage, just to ensure I spot things I might have missed when communicating expectations (which is a learning area for me)?”

Inviting feedback

  • “I am always working to strengthen [my communication, delegation, or XYZ]. Can you think of anything I can be doing to improve that in our work together?
  • “I’d love your perspective on what worked and didn’t work about that meeting. I think X, but I don’t think I did enough of Y. What would you have done differently?”
  • If we were to move on as planned, what would be at stake? What do you think the impact would be on you, our team, or our work and results.”
  • “What else would you like me to know?”

Giving feedback

  • “I know figuring out how to deal with X has been tricky. First, tell me how you think it’s been going, then I have an idea to share.”
  • “I had some thoughts on X. Can I share them with you?”

Debriefing

  • “I’d like to debrief how X went so we can capture lessons while they’re fresh. Does that sound good to you?”
  • “I know figuring out why X ended up being tough. Did you end up with any take-aways for the next time we have to do similar work?”

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