Managing Sideways – Getting Things Done Without Authority

As challenging as managing people can be, managing work when you don’t have formal authority over the people doing it can be even more challenging. Managing sideways – or influencing the performance of people who don’t report to you – takes special thought. Here are four keys to doing it well.

1. Be sure to explain the “why.” While you should always explain the larger context when you’re delegating work, it’s especially key to do this when you’re managing sideways. As a peer, you lack the authority to simply assign work – but your requests will go over a lot better if you contextualize them and explain why what you’re asking is important. For instance, if you’re explaining why something needs to be done quickly, you might say, “I know it’s a time crunch, but the printer says that we can’t send them the file any later than Friday if we want to have it printed before the event.”

2. Communicate roles clearly. When you’re delegating to a peer, it’s easy to inadvertently miscommunicate what you’d like her role to be, as well as what yours is. For example, your colleague might assume that she’ll be the final approver of the content of a web page you’ve asked her to create when in fact you’ll be making the final call. This can create more awkwardness than if you just clarify roles from the start. In this case, you could say, “Once you have proposed content, I’d like to sign off and might make some changes before we finalize it, because there are some political sensitivities that I want to make sure we navigate.”

3. Don’t hide the message. When you feel awkward about managing sideways, it can be tempting to soften the message, sometimes to the point that the other person doesn’t realize what’s being communicated. For instance, if you need a press release by May 1 but feel awkward about being directive to a peer, you might end up saying, “I’d love to have it by May 1 if we can.” But because you didn’t convey a hard deadline, your coworker might understandably think you have more flexibility than you do. That’s not fair to her; you want to make sure that she’s as clear about the needs of the work as you are.

4. Act with confidence – or fake it until you make it. If you feel uneasy about managing sideways, it will probably show and make your coworker feel awkward too. Things will go more smoothly if you instead act with confidence, treating the interaction as if it’s perfectly normal (even if you feel anxious or awkward inside). One tip for doing this: Imagine someone doing it smoothly and what that would look like (ideally even thinking of someone you’ve seen execute this type of interaction well), and then act as if you were that person. It might feel like cheating, but it works!













Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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