How to Manage a Project (When You Don't Manage the People)

Use These 6 Tips to Manage a Project When Team Members Don't Report to You

When the leader doesn't manage the people, they rely on their ability to function as a team to complete a successful project.
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One of the worst parts of school was the dreaded group project. Inevitably, each group of four had a complete and total slacker, two hard but fairly mediocre workers, and one person who dragged everyone else to success. These groups were always frustrating (unless you were the slacker) and didn't reflect real life at all.

Why? Because in the business world, in the real world, each project has a project manager and this person can hand out real consequences, up to and including firing the slackers.

While this is often true, it's also true that a lot of times the project manager doesn't have disciplinary authority over her team, let alone hire and fire authority.

She doesn't get to pick the people on the project, and she doesn't get to kick them off if they are doing a rotten job. Nor does she have the power to reward a successful person with anything other than kind words. How do you manage a project when you're in this situation? Here are six tips about how to lead a project when the team members don't report to you.

Clarify Your Limits With the Boss

Before you even have your first team meeting, sit down with the person who assigned you to this project and talk about management expectations. This is easiest, of course, if you and all of the team members report into the same person, but even if not, you need to have this conversation.

These are questions you'll want to ask:

  • Do you have the power to remove/replace people on the team if they aren't working out?
  • Does this project take priority over other projects? If not, then where does your project sit in the hierarchy. In other words, can you tell your team members they need to stop doing a different project to meet a deadline?
  • If you have issues with team member performance, will the boss with disciplinary power back you up, or are you considered an equal with team members?

    If you've established your limits before the project begins, you'll know just how far you can go and what you can ask of your team members. A boss who says, “this project is the top priority” but won't back you up on that, is the same as the boss saying, “this isn't the top priority.” Understanding and working this out, in the beginning, can save you time and stress.

    Having control over team membership is ideal, but not often available—even if you do normally have hire and fire power over team members. Why? Because most companies are stretched thin and lack resources to shift people around. But, knowing in advance can save headaches and prevent you from making false threats.

    Talk to Your Team Before Making Assignments

    When you have a cross-organizational team, it's easy to make assignments. Jane from marketing will handle the marketing tasks. Karen from finance will handle the financials. But even when responsibilities are clear, talk with your team members first.

    You may find out that both Karen and Jane asked to be on this team to learn more about other areas of the company, so when you assign them to their areas of expertise, they can become frustrated.

    This conversation is critical to having a great team relationship.

    Though you are responsible for the ultimate project outcome, you won't achieve great results without team members who are on board. Ask for their input, and ask for their concerns. Make sure you take everything into consideration and can explain your decisions.

    Double Check With the Boss

    If, after talking to your team members, you determine that the only way to accomplish this task is to give assignments that one or more people will find unpleasant, talk to your boss before making the assignments.

    Why? You want to make sure that you have the backup you need and that you haven't neglected an option that will make the assignments more fulfilling to the team members.

    Take at Least One Lousy Task Yourself

    For fun, assume the task is redecorating the office. Everyone wants to go to the furniture store and test out chairs, but no one wants to clean the walls before repainting. Guess who will participate on the wall cleaning team? That's right. You.

    Why, when everyone knows you were chosen to lead this team because of your fabulous understanding of ergonomic principles? Because it's a lousy job and someone has to do it and that someone is the team leader.

    Taking on something difficult or unpleasant sends the message that you're a part of the team and that you care about your teammates. Assigning out the unpleasant tasks sends the message that you think you are better than your teammates. You're not.

    This doesn't mean that you have to do all of the lousy tasks. But make sure they're fairly divided out amongst team members. What is unpleasant varies from team to team, but every project has something that no one wants to do. Often there are numerous tasks that everyone would like to avoid. Make sure they are divided fairly and you take your share.

    Give Prompt Feedback

    Remember feedback is more than saying, "great job" or "bad job" it's “that was a great job because...” and “that didn't turn out so well because...” Without the because phrases no one learns. And as long as you're looking to hand out feedback, make sure that you're accepting feedback from your team members.

    You're not their boss and they should feel comfortable giving you their two cents worth. (Of course, even if you were their boss, they should still feel comfortable giving you their two cents worth.)

    Keep Everyone Informed

    As the team leader, you're reporting progress to your organization's managers and senior leaders. Make sure that you take the information from those meetings back to your team. Additionally, let your group know what you're going to say at these meetings.

    Also, give everyone credit, especially when praise is involved. Is the project going well because you're fabulous? Well, of course, but don't say that. Say that the project is going well because the team is fabulous. Everyone will know that you're part of the team.

    But what if the project is going horribly? Do you share the blame? Yes, but only privately. You go to team members individually and work to help change their direction or contribution. If that doesn't work, you go to your boss and address the issues.

    If you have the power to remove people from the team, now is the time to do so, but if you don't, you can talk with the person who does. But whatever you do, don't start gossiping or complaining about your team members. It will destroy their morale and make everything worse.

    Remember that a successfully led team project can boost your career, advance your professional reputation, and make your work visible in your organization for additional plum assignments. So give the project your all.  

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