How to Build Authority and Manage People When You’re Not a Manager

A subscriber to my newsletter recently sent me this challenge that they’re experiencing:

“My challenge is how to establish myself as a manager when I’m not directly managing others – to build trust, be approached for advice/mentorship, be seen as not just a valuable resource but as someone who helps others across the company. I believe I am doing some of it but I’d love to have a more formal roadmap here!”

I’ve received other challenges that revolve around how to manage others and establish authority when:

  • You’re an individual contributor.
  • You’re a consultant working with an in-house team.

Essentially, we’re talking about how to manage others when you don’t technically have the authority to do so and aren’t responsible for things such as their career development and progression. But perhaps you do need to get people working together, moving in the same direction and being effective.

The thing is, whilst being made a manager does give you formal authority to lead a team, it doesn’t mean that people are actually going to follow you. It’s not the authority that comes with a job title that matters, it’s the authority that you earn that truly matters.

And you don’t have to be someone’s direct manager in order to earn this type of authority.

Instead, you need the people around you to:

  • Respect you.
  • Trust you.
  • Learn from you.

When you show these things, you start to generate authority. And not just any authority, but the authority that is earned and therefore, more effective to use than that which comes with a “manager” job title.

So, the question becomes, how do you demonstrate these attributes and build authority?

Let’s take a look and learn a few actionable ways to do so.

Take ownership of problems and challenges

When people around you see you take ownership of problems and challenges, it naturally builds trust and respect. This is especially true if you’re not a manager because they probably don’t expect you to step up and take ownership in this way. 

For example, if you’re working on a project with your colleagues and it’s starting to look like you’re going to miss the deadline for a stakeholder, you could be the person who leads getting things back on track. You could work with the team to find ways to get the timeline back on track or if needed, speak directly with the stakeholder and adjust the deadline.

Or, to put it another way and as an old boss once said to me – run towards trouble.

Find opportunities to deliver on the job training

The chances are that formal training is organised (and possibly delivered) by someone’s direct manager, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t share your knowledge outside of this.

A great way to do this is to look for small learning opportunities in your day-to-day work. One tactic to do this is to gather a few people around your desk and explain to them how to do something or fix a problem. This not only helps them learn, but helps them see your own expertise and willingness to share.

If you’re remote and would rather not ask people to join a quick call, then you can use a screen recording tool such as Loom to record a video of you doing something. Then you can share the video for others to watch in their own time.

Show a organised and professional approach to meetings and calls

It always baffles me how many people overlook the basics of being organised and professional during calls and meetings. I’m talking about things including:

  • Setting (and sticking to) an agenda.
  • Taking good notes.
  • Making a note of actions and sharing them afterwards.
  • Starting and finishing on time.

If you want to build trust and respect without being a direct manager, just doing all of these consistently will put you above the majority of other people, perhaps even above some managers!

This is also a subtle, but effective way of being a little authoritative but in a positive way.

Hold yourself accountable

Accountability can be a difficult concept for many to understand and can mean different things to different people. But when you distil it down to its core, accountability is simply about doing what you said you would – every time.

Similar to the previous point, if you’re someone who does what you say you will do even single time, you’ll be ahead of lots of other people and stand out to your colleagues as someone who they can trust.

There is also a level of implied professionalism that occurs when you hold yourself accountable which, again, can subtly show authority without needing to formally have it.

Give useful feedback on day-to-day work

We tend to think that our managers are the people who will give us feedback in our day-to-day work, simply because it’s an official part of their job and they have the authority to deliver feedback, especially negative feedback, to us.

But feedback can come from anywhere. 

In fact, it’s hugely valuable to get feedback from a variety of sources which means that you should actively give feedback to colleagues where appropriate.

You should be careful here because you don’t want to accidentally tread into the territory of feedback that is best for a manager to deliver, such as feedback that revolves around bigger picture career development including promotions and hitting objectives.

Instead, focus on giving feedback on day-to-day work such as projects they’re working on or skills that they are looking to learn. Give them the benefit of your own experience when you were working on the same things as them.

If you’re an individual contributor, an aspiring manager or an external consultant, you can use all of the actions above to build trust and respect, subtly building authority over time which will help you be more effective – without needing the authority that comes with being “a manager”.

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