Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Enterprise Viewpoint Magazine – Influencing Without Authority in Project Management


Anyone that has taken on the role as a project manager, either officially or not, knows the feeling. We are handed a project to deliver that has stakeholders from different organizations, as well as we depend on other organizations for their support to be successful.  Most of the time, we are not the CEO of the company, nor do the people that have tasks to complete report to you. You do not have the authority to get the work done, but it is your responsibility to get it done. Does that sound familiar?  This is a scenario a project manager faces every day.

Have you ever had to “uninvite” a major decision maker from a meeting, especially when it is the primary contact and budget holder for the project?  How can you possibly do this gracefully? In this situation, one does not have any authority, but needs to influence this major stakeholder.

A while ago I was put into this exact situation. The person in question, Victor, was a manager at a major company in Detroit. He has risen to his position because he could cut through the noise and get to the facts of a situation, thus making a decision quickly.  This was exactly why I couldn’t have him at the meeting. I needed the team to own the decision, and if Victor was there, he would make the decision, and the team could wash their hands of it.

I took my concerns directly to Victor, explaining my respect for his ability to cut through the noise and get to the information needed to make a decision. I went on to explain the necessity of the decision’s ownership to be on the team, and if he was there, the ownership would land on him. At that point  asked him not to come to the meeting. After what seemed like a full minute of waiting, he looked at me, smiled and agreed not to attend the meeting.

What I did here was based on months of developing a relationship with a person, looking for their strengths, and then reflecting my appreciation for those strengths back to him. It was the relationship and acknowledgment of his strengths that gave me the influence I needed to bring it all together.

Setting the Foundation

In order to make sure we are all working from the same foundation, I would like to define some terms:

Definition of Influence

1: the power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways1

Definition of Authority

1a: power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior2

Example: the president’s authority

Definition of Legitimate Authority

Authority a person has based on their position within an organization, company, political group, etc.

Definition of Acknowledgment

Acknowledgment is a heartfelt and authentic communication that lets a person know his or her value to the organization or team and the importance of the contribution that they make.3

Grateful Leadership and Influence

Grateful Leaders consistently use acknowledgment. There are those people that look at a situation and see a reason to be grateful, and then let people know it.  In my current role, I have a manager that I trust and will follow just about anywhere.  One of his qualities is that he acknowledges each of us for the work we do and the person that each of us brings to the job. He appreciates who we are.

Here are a couple questions I would like you to ponder:

  1. Do you know someone that you would consider a Grateful Leader?  Why?
  2. Do you consider yourself a Grateful Leader?

Building the Grateful Leadership Culture

Gratitude in Leadership is a key element to building trust. Trust is a “must have” when it comes to leadership. Nobody will follow someone whom they do not trust.  Therefore, it is important to make Grateful Leadership and Acknowledgment a personal habit.  If people see a leader that uses gratitude on an inconsistent basis, it will be seen as inauthentic, possibly even manipulative. In these cases, trust can be thrown out the door.

The key is to make acknowledgment one of your personal qualities by building the acknowledgment habit.  Begin practicing acknowledgment as often as you can.  If you are not familiar with how to do this, Judith W. Umlas has the perfect book to get things started: Grateful Leadership: Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results (© 2013 IIL / McGraw-Hill). In the book, Ms. Umlas gives the step by step process for giving acknowledgments, and building the acknowledgment habit. They are referred to as the “5 Cs”:

  1. Consciousness – Become aware of all the opportunities around you for acknowledging someone.
  2. Choice – Choose to make a difference by acknowledging someone for their actions
  3. Courage – Have the courage to speak up and make that difference
  4. Communication – Communicate the acknowledgment to the person in whatever way gets the appreciation across
  5. Commitment – Make the commitment to yourself, and any organization you are part of, to build a culture of gratitude.

How can you do this within your organization?  Well, does your organization have a recognition system? Building your recognition on the foundation of a true acknowledgment “supercharges” the recognition. To put it simply, recognition is seeing the job that was done; acknowledgment sees the person that did the job and what characteristic led them to perform it the way they did. This recognition based on acknowledgment can ignite a whole new set of behavior within your organization, and builds the grateful leadership culture.

Leadership is a 360 Degree Role

Many people have worked with a grateful leader. How does that make you feel?  Most people will respond that being acknowledged is a boost, not just for the person getting the acknowledgment, but for the whole team. People have said they will “bend-over-backwards” for a person that acknowledges them authentically.  When asked “Why?” responses include: “Because [the person] really knows me” and “Because [the person] really cares about me.”

The best part of Grateful Leadership is that you don’t have to be at the top of the organization to practice it.  Many people know about being recognized in a profound way by the person you report to. Have you ever been acknowledged by a peer?  Peer-to-to peer acknowledgment is powerful in team building.  When a person in management acknowledges someone, that is great. When a peer acknowledges a teammate, the culture changes. I have heard some people describe organizations built on a culture of acknowledgment as having the feeling of a family because people care about each other that much. And don’t forget to acknowledge those who are higher in the organization, management.  Most managers don’t get recognition from those reporting to them. This has to be done authentically, because you don’t want to be seen as trying to win favor from, or “suck-up” to management. If this is done sincerely, it has a powerful effect on the whole organization. Managers need to know that they are appreciated too.

Grateful Leadership isn’t about your position in an organization!  It is about building respectful relationships with those around you. In short, Grateful Leadership is about recognizing and acknowledging the value of those people with whom you work.

Influencing in the Project Management Framework

I have been a project manager for over 25 years.  In my experience, if you build a culture of acknowledgment and gratitude, much of the project will run smoothly, and when there are those times when things are not running smoothly, the communications are more clear and resolutions found faster.  This is because of the trust built in such a culture.

Influence During Each Phase of a project

In general, there are five phases to every project: Project Initiation, Project Planning, Project Execution, Project Control, and Project Close. In each of these phases, a culture of gratitude and acknowledgment can be a key to success:

  1. Project Initiation – When determining what the goal of the project is, use acknowledgment, especially for people that have the knowledge and explain clearly what is wanted.
  2. Project Planning – This can be the most challenging phase of the project, so acknowledge people for their knowledge and experience. They know what has to be done and can identify risks and pitfalls early so they can be avoided.
  3. Project Execution – Acknowledge people for their commitment to the plan as well as their ability to keep things on track. It is the people that make things happen.
  4. Project Control – If the project is on track, acknowledge people for their value to the team and dedication. If the project goes off track, acknowledge people that identified it.  Do not allow people to play the blame game. Bring together the people needed to get the project back on track and acknowledge them for their ideas and solutions.
  5. Project Close – It is time to celebrate success. Do so with much gratitude.  What if it wasn’t a success?  Gather the team together and discover the lessons learned, acknowledging all for their candor, as well as their constructive discussions on how things can go better in the future.

If a project manager has this type of mindset, do you think people will want to work with them in the future? Would you?

Acknowledgment During an Agile Project

Today’s world is changing fast, and projects and programs have to keep pace with this change.  Project management is often linked to such terms as “Agile” and “Scrum”.

Figure 1

Every project moves from one phase of the process to another, and this requires deliberate communications.  The Project Management Institute’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) contains specific information about implementing a Communications Plan within the project.  We should encourage each other to make acknowledgment part of this plan.  There is no better place to build a culture of gratitude and acknowledgment than within a project team.

Acknowledgment Within A Sprint

Agile / Scrum Projects have many specific meetings, the goal of which is to deliver a product as close to the needs of the customer as quickly as possible.  To do this there needs to be [adjective] communications within the project team, as well as with the product stakeholders.  Each of these communications is an opportunity for acknowledgment.

Figure 2

Scrum Acknowledgment Opportunities:

  • Product Backlog Grooming – Acknowledge the Vision, Ingenuity, and Commitment of the Product Owners and Users
  • Sprint Backlog Grooming – Acknowledge the people that have worked on the project so far and their diligence in delivering?
    • Can we continue with the same?
    • Acknowledge the people and their insights
  • Daily Standup – Acknowledge constantly throughout the sprint – especially here
  • Customer Demos of the product – There isn’t a better time to acknowledge someone for their value in the project. Let team members show off the work! That is a great type of acknowledgement!
  • Sprint Reviews – Excellent time to acknowledge many people; each of these sets of questions is a chance to acknowledge someone. What went well? What did we learn? What should we stop doing? What should we keep doing? What should we start doing?

Next Steps

As the Chinese proverb says: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  Every Grateful Leadership journey begins with a single acknowledgment. When it comes to influencing without authority, remember, the focus is always on relationships; and Grateful Leadership is a solid strategy for building relationships. Start practicing Grateful Leadership and acknowledgment today.  Start building that culture of gratitude within your organization. It all begins with a single acknowledgment of a single act done well.

There is a group of people that are committed to acknowledgment and grateful leadership, it is appropriately named the Center for Grateful Leadership and can be found on the internet at www.gratefulleadership.com. You will find speakers, books, webinars, and many other resources to support you on your grateful leadership journey.

About the Author

James G. Trela, PMP, MBA, MS-IST, GLCP-L1

Trela has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master of Science degree in Information Systems and Technology  from the University of Michigan, and an MBA from Walsh College of Business and Accountancy.  Trela earned the International Institute for Learning’s 2018 Acknowledgment Ambassador Award for his work in hosting and producing the Art of Grateful Leadership podcast and earned his Grateful Leadership Certified Professional – Level 1 certification in 2019. Trela presented at IIL’s 2023 International Project Management Day. Currently, Trela is a Senior Project Manager and North American Project Management Lead for iPoint Systems GmbH.


Figure 1 – scrum_framework.jpg (960×573) (softwaretestingclass.com)
Figure 2 – scrum_framework.jpg (960×573) (softwaretestingclass.com)