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Influencer QA

What to Do With Accountability when You Lack Authority

During the month of July, we publish “best of” content. The following article was first published on September 20, 2009.

Dear Crucial Skills,

My supervisor often gives me leadership responsibility for projects involving multiple departments. However, my position is not viewed as one of authority. As a result, I struggle to get results from others when I ask them to do something. When I present my lack of progress and ask for assistance, I’m told I need to stop blaming others for my lack of results. Since I have been trained to teach Crucial Conversations, my supervisor assumes I should be able to convince others to shift their priorities. Unfortunately, people outside of my department are not able to make my request their top priority, no matter how many Crucial Conversations skills I employ.

How do I get my supervisor to see that I need her support, without making her think I am blaming others? I am at the end of my rope!

Without Support

Dear Without,

You are not alone. When I was teaching at Stanford’s Advanced Project Management Program this was the participants’ most frequent concern. You’re given lots of accountability, but no authority, and you’re expected to use your skills and charm to get it all done.

It doesn’t work that way, does it?

Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability focus on dialogue skills—the skills required to reach shared understanding and commitment. These skills would be all you needed if the lack of cooperation you were experiencing was the exception, not the rule. However, it sounds as if it’s the rule, and that tells me you need to change the rules. You need a structural solution—a solution that involves all Six Sources of Influence.

The situation you describe calls for a project-management system, one that people buy into and have the skills to use. Then it requires holding people accountable to the system—not just to your individual projects.

I will walk through the influence model found in Influencer to help you solve this problem. The process starts with identifying measurable results you want to achieve; next, identify a few key behaviors that, if changed, will bring about those results; and finally, outline strategies to accomplish your vital behaviors using six different sources of influence.

Measurable Results. Your goal is to ensure project schedules, budgets, and specs are met.

It sounds as if your projects have to compete with employees’ other tasks. That’s to be expected. The problem occurs when your projects never get a high enough priority, or when the priority gets bumped. Instead of focusing on your project, focus on the overall project-planning process. Your goal is to get people to commit to a fair process—one that meets their objectives as well as yours. Then your challenge is to help everyone stick to the process. Become a champion for the process, not just your project. This change will create greater Mutual Purpose.

Vital Behaviors. The vital behaviors you’ll want to focus on are:

1. Prioritizing all of your project’s tasks against people’s competing tasks.
2. Establishing that people who complete the tasks have input into the project plan and sign up to deliver on realistic schedules, budgets, and specs.
3. Ensuring that when people have reason to believe they could miss a schedule, budget, or spec, they will immediately update the team on the problem.

The Six Sources of Influence. The sources of influence and specific strategies you’ll need to target are:

Source 1 – Personal Motivation: The people you rely on are feeling a lot of pain. Their plates are too full. They feel as if they have five bosses and they’re constantly being blindsided with new, unexpected demands. Instead of turning up the heat regarding your projects, get their buy-in to a more consistent process—one that has realistic priorities and plans.

Source 2 – Personal Ability: You and your colleagues may have to learn basic project-management principles. Look for resources that are already available within your firm, such as a project-management specialist. Once you have a project-management system in place, you’ll find your Crucial Conversations skills will become more powerful.

Sources 3 & 4 – Social Motivation & Ability: The most important social support you need is from your manager and the managers your resource people report to. They need to fully support a more robust project-management system. Ease their concerns that the priority-setting process may take more time and is less flexible by demonstrating how results are delivered far more reliably.

Source 5 – Structural Motivation: I bet the employees you count on are rewarded for achieving results within their own departments, and not for achieving your goals. Goals that require cross-functional teamwork are often shortchanged. Work with your manager and the resource managers to find ways to reward people for executing on their plans and for keeping to the project-planning process you’ve outlined. Even tiny changes to these reward systems will send a powerful message that managers are serious.

Source 6 – Structural Ability: This entire approach relies on implementing a project-management structure. Check to see if you already have one that’s gone dormant. Check to see if your organization has a Project Management Office that can help you re-invigorate your project structure. Here are some basic structural elements I’d want to see: a priority-setting process that involves the right stakeholders; a project planning process that results in realistic schedules, budgets, and specs; project status meetings that keep the projects on track; a measurement system that provides ongoing feedback on how well people are keeping to their project plans.

Report Back to your Manager. Meet with your manager and frame the larger issue. It isn’t just about executing your projects; it’s about executing any and all projects. Bring in whatever facts you can to back up your case. If you don’t have data on missed deadlines, budget overruns, and failures to meet specs, then bring in examples of the problems. For example: people have unclear priorities, priorities that constantly change, objectives that aren’t realistic, or no clear project plans to follow. Explain that solving this larger problem is the best way to solve your specific problem.

Best of luck in influencing your organization,
David

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David Maxfield

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. David’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.
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3 thoughts on “What to Do With Accountability when You Lack Authority”

  1. I have had similar experiences with the perception that if you’ve crucial conversation training you should be able to convince people to do things even though you no authority to back it up. The project management approach does work, but only if all the projects are integrated. Our company fragments it’s projects with the same individual being resource loaded into multiple projects, sometimes at over 100% capacity for the person, but the project managers have no say on the setting the priorities of the individuals doing the work. So there are still problems with getting things properly prioritized but it’s better than NOT using a project approach.

  2. Simply outstanding. One must do all that one can and document what came of it. Even in broken process, the metrics will speak for you if lack of support impacts the work.

  3. It is not that you lack the authority, it the lack of communication and to communicate effectively you will have to invest some time in the individuals you will be working with. You almost have to be a detective to know that individuals behavior like their likes and dislikes, weakness
    and strengths and how they react under stress. it is a lot of work but it is a worthwhile investment. Because of my size, I had to learn to be approachable in my body language and when speaking, had to learn non threatening words and to speak in a very calm way. But the greatest skill which I am still trying to master is listening. To many times we listen with a response, thinking that we understand exactly what the other individual is saying. But in reality we miss it because we want the other party to know that we are very knowledgeable individual and they can come to us with their problem. Ninety five percent of the time they just need an ear.

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