Thursday, March 22, 2007

March 22 – Understanding Authority Levels

The purpose of authority is to accomplish the goals of a project or organization. But authority is a slippery thing. This is especially true for a consultant. On one assignment you are the program manager over several projects and the next you might be reporting to one of your former project managers. Keeping that perspective helps you refrain from abusing your power.

Here are a couple of other things I have learned about authority.

No Respect. Project Managers generally have no direct authority, especially in a matrix environment. The only real authority you have is either given to you or earned.

Take as much as you want. Many people are willing to give up authority if you are willing to do the work that goes with it. Obviously there are limits, especially in organizations based on authority and when dealing with power hungry individuals, but in general you will find this true. The key is to pick and choose the responsibilities that will help your project be successfully. One overlooked but powerful position is meeting ownership. If you can control the agenda and minutes for a meeting you hold a strategic place. It may sound boring but deciding what is discussed and being able to steer the conversation where you want is powerful.

Positional Authority. This is probably the weakest form of authority, but is usually the most abused. Its weakness comes from the fact that it isn’t always deserved, doesn’t necessarily come with respect and can be taken away as quickly as given. That doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. As a project manager, your Charter or other defining documents give you the authority to run the project. Use it with respect for individuals and it can help you move obstacles. Another form of this authority is base on your upper management. Essentially this is name dropping. If you start your email by saying the VP of Finance asked you to follow up on something it will probably get a faster response than just asking nicely.

Referent Authority. This includes your ability to influence others through your charisma, personality and charm. If you are a great person to be around people will want to be on your projects. Your team will want you to succeed and will work harder to make it happen.

Coercive and Reward Authorities. The use of punishment and positive reinforcement are two types of authority that can be effective. The possibility of a better project, more pay or a new job title can encourage people to put in extra effort. Demoting or taking privileges away can correct help bad behavior or encourage people to seek employment elsewhere. The problem is that these only work until you’ve ticked your team off or you no longer have anything to offer.

Expert Authority. If you can earn the respect of your team and management you have the highest level of authority anyone can achieve. No, I’m not talking about the respect that Al Capone had by roughing people up. Respect is earned by successfully managing projects and treating people right. Real respect makes people want to work for you because of your abilities and it makes your team want to you to be successful.

Whatever authority you are wielding, remember to use it for good and not evil.

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