What to do when leading without authority sucks

For many, one of the most frustrating aspects of product management is to lead a team to a solution while having no real authority. You often have to establish and re-establish rapport with new team members, and adapt yourself to different expectations in a new project. No matter how exciting a project is and how clear the end goal is in your head, it can feel paralyzing to deal with a team that challenges you, lacks trust in your direction, and prefers the approval of their direct managers for decisions. I know I have often run into this situation. What I have learnt is that the key in those situations is to stop thinking about results, and focus on what I can do right.

1. When you feel powerless and overwhelmed

When we feel we are being overridden and decisions are being taken without involving us, it is tempting to want to give up and complain. It is important however, to examine our own roles in the situation. In my mind, a core part of being a leader is your sense of identity and whether you give it away to other people or situations. The power to drive results comes from that identity and helps you to replicate past achievements in a new and more difficult project. Often you might not need permission to take actions, or drive momentum through smaller changes, to lead effectively. Achieving and celebrating small wins can restore your confidence and gradually build others’ in yours.

2. When your team refuses to align

This is something I learnt from acting school: when your partners on stage are not responding to you the way you would like to, it is important to view it with compassion. In most cases, they are not aware of what you are trying to do. The same thing applies to work. People probably aren’t resisting you out of spite. They just may not know you well enough to trust your direction, or they may not be clear on the objectives. Spend time to share a full picture of yourself and your vision, find out whether there are insecurities or gaps in the teams’ collective knowledge and thinking that you can address, and aggregate everyone’s thoughts into a shared pool of meaning.

3. When functional manager counterparts don’t listen

If your efforts at communication are disregarded, or if they insist that you run every decision by them for approval, talk to other leaders in your organization. Chances are they have experienced something similar and have valuable insights. They can also champion your goals to the team, and provide the moral support you need when you feel enervated. Study people who have the trust of the organization you are dealing with and do your best to emulate the qualities they exhibit. At the end of the day, it helps to remember that every leader deals with a different version of what you face.

4. When team members are not focused on results

Contributing to others’ success is an effective strategy to build trust in your leadership. My experience has been that the more difficult teams are usually ones which do not receive enough support from their direct managers. Sometimes they need encouragement, recognition, or a specific challenge to produce results. Identify areas where one or a couple of your team members with complementary skills could take lead, ask them to help lead the results, and show them how this will benefit their growth. This shows that you trust their abilities and contributions, and value them. When your team believes that, they are more likely to try out new suggestions, and get resourceful about completing the work that needs to be done. Every person has greatness in them, and an effective leader helps to bring out their greatness and support them in their leadership journeys.

If you enjoyed this story, please click the 👏 button and share to help others find it! Feel free to leave a comment below.