Supervising without Authority?


Clown in Figi - by petersbar on Flickr Used under Creative Commons, Some rights reserved

Clown in Fiji — an example of a mutually beneficial relationship.

Last weekend, someone mentioned how difficult it is to supervise people if you don’t have the authority to impose consequences when they don’t their job.

That reminded me how I often work in settings where I’m accountable for making things happen, but I don’t have any formal authority. I facilitate collaborative initiatives, or write white papers, or manage volunteers.

This lack of authority has never bothered me. My inner Minnesotan would much rather rely on softer tools to make things happen. And the part of me that reads scientific research knows that authority is the last-ditch attempt to motivate someone, and almost any other approach is more effective.

I start by helping people see the self-interest in taking on something that beyond their normal “job.” If you get cited as an expert in a research paper, or if you both want a policy change, or if you get to learn new skills while expanding your professional network, you just might sign on.

Of course, being willing to help out with a project doesn’t always reach to the smaller details of getting things done. Someone needs to set an agenda, someone needs to make those follow-up phone calls, someone needs to draft the proposal. For that sort of thing, it’s all about the relationship, and more basic psychology.

People often do things because they want to maintain a relationship. You like or respect one another, and you don’t want to lose that. You know there may be referrals sometime in the future. So after someone signs on, I often start building a relationship — lunch or coffee, a chance to talk about the shared work, and hopefully an opportunity to find something in common or learn about one of their passions.

That relationship is part of the psychology; we like to reciprocate and to do things for people we like. Getting a verbal commitments to do something helps — we like to think of ourselves the kind of person who keeps a promise. So clear expectations go a long way. I’ve found asking people personally and directly to… draft and send out the agenda by a specific date… or call so-and-so before Tuesday… or whatever specific task by whatever date is likely to get you a yes, especially if there’s a relationship. You may need to send a reminder, but it’s likely to get done once there is a commitment.

One last pro tip. Remember to say thank you often, privately and publicly.