January 15, 2010 | Author: PM Hut | Filed under: Project Management Musings
Authority Without Authority
By Barry Otterholt
Authority can be a fragile thing. You pay a dear price to obtain it, it can break if handled wrong, and it wears out quickly if used too often. Why not use it sparingly and make it last longer? In fact, why not leave it untouched entirely and in its original condition forever? It might even increase in value over time.
Authority is typically invoked when you cannot persuade people to follow based purely on the merits of your opinion. This means that authority is often an indicator of dissent. And with dissent you are getting concession, not agreement.
Each person brings a certain number of concessions to a relationship. They’re not aware of it of course, and the number of concessions vary from person to person, according to their tolerance for things they don’t like. Each time you exert your authority over them, you use up some of your concession credits. If you exert your authority too often, your concession balance will be used up and your relationship will no longer be worth having.
If you ignore the symptoms of dissent, tensions will mount and relationships will start forming around differing opinions rather than shared purpose. This is when people start questioning their relationship with you and their wisdom of following your lead, regardless of your authority.
“All authority belongs to the people” - Thomas Jefferson
As an engaged project manager, you understand that your success lies in your ability to build a shared sense of purpose around the objectives of the project. You invest political and emotional capital in the people that are instrumental in reaching those objectives. You do whatever is possible to channel efforts, tear down barriers, and promote good ideas. This builds open relationships, where you can engage in candid conversations with your staff about expectations, strategies, and barriers to success.
There is a sense of family around the effective project manager, with plenty of critical comment and frustration, but also with obvious mutual trust and respect, and a desire to deliver. The staff have given the project manager implicit authority to lead them.
The best authority is that which your followers grant. With this authority, you can keep your original authority tucked neatly away, seldom having to use it, and watch it’s value increase over time.
Barry Otterholt, CMC, PMP
Barry Otterholt has been a project management specialist and coach for the past 30 years. He is a Certified Management Consultant (CMC) and a Project Management Professional (PMP). He works with both public and private sector companies in the USA, Europe and Scandinavia. Mr. Otterholt was a Director with Microsoft, a senior consultant with Deloitte Consulting, and a COO with a nationwide consumer electronics enterprise. In 1988 he founded Public Knowledge, LLC to provide independent management and operational support to the public sector. More recently, he founded Stouffer & Company, LLC to provide as-needed project management services to fill an obvious skills gap in both private and public sectors.
Mr. Otterholt is an adjunct professor teaching project management at Northwest University. His essays on project management have been published in PMI newsletters. His runs a blog, Project Management Essays, where he muses about various project management topics.
Mr. Otterholt is a member of the Institute of Management Consultants (IMC) and the Project Management Institute (PMI). He has a BA in Accounting and Computer Science and an MBA in Business Administration. He lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.