How to Deal with Authority Issues as a Project Manager

How to Deal with Authority Issues as a Project Manager
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When Scope Becomes a Liability

The internal project manager operates within the executive-level defined scope of authority. She usually has the express authorization to pick team members, request overtime allotments, and actively work on forming a cohesive team that gets results and meets benchmarks. At the same time, these project team members are still under the general supervisory control of other managers and department heads.

It is in this setting that scope becomes a liability. If the team member commits an infraction while at his regularly assigned post, the worker’s direct supervisor or manager follows a company-wide agreed upon model of warnings and disciplinary actions. Yet this same worker, assigned to a project manager, is no longer under the direct supervision of the other manager – even though he still appears on all the paperwork as being a member of that manager’s department. At the same time, the project manager is not generally empowered to follow the disciplinary process, since the worker and the professional are not in a direct supervisory reporting relationship.

Alternatives to Corporate Tattling

Nobody likes a tattletale; this holds true in kindergarten and also in the corporate boardroom when discussing project human resource management. To overcome the gray area of managerial authority, “Project Management Methodology and Toolkit” author Gerard Hill suggests that “the organization should develop procedures and guidance regarding how resource management authority can be shared between the resource manager and the project manager.”

Lofty goals, to be sure, but how can you implement them successfully and consistently across various departments and also projects?

Tackling Personnel Problems Structurally

  • Performance review influence. The project manager does not have the responsibility of creating annual performance reviews for individual team members. To encourage personnel performance while under the direction of a project manager, executive management changes the annual evaluation process to include a weighted section on project performance for each employee. If the individual did not participate in a project, the field is left blank. If the worker did have a part in one or more projects, each project manager assigns a value to the worker’s performance. This figure is taken into account when determining the overall annual review and merit increase in pay.
  • Team member performance becomes a benchmark of the project management process. Under the guidance of executive-level management, the project manager incorporates team member performance standard adherence to benchmark measurements. Performance failures are brought to the attention of the executive management team, which in turn communicates with the team member’s various supervisors or managers.
  • Peer review process. It is tricky to successfully implement a peer review process. When done correctly, it partially shifts the responsibility for project team supervision from the project manager to team members, who internally police themselves and their fellow team mates. If self-policing does not work, the issues are escalated to the project manager, who then takes appropriate action.

Project Manager as Coach

Assuming that there are no processes in place to deal with personnel problems structurally, the project manager finds herself in the position of coach. This approach is a lot more time-consuming in the scheme of daily project management tasks, but dealing with team members’ performance issues is not optional.

  • Define compliance metrics. Generally speaking, these will be identical to the company-wide rules and requirements set forth in the employee handbook. They are applied specifically to the project management arena as needed. Write-ups, verbal warnings and dismissal processes may be initiated by the project manager rather than the direct supervisor.
  • Document variances. Going by feelings is a mistake. At the very least, note the first occasion of the problem, and do not neglect to highlight possible means of behavior modification.
  • Give feedback immediately. Do not wait for a formal team meeting or a one-on-one that is scheduled already but for some time in the future. Instead, set up a meeting as soon as possible to discuss the issues. Go into the meeting as a coach rather than as a project manager. Resort to pulling rank only if the team member is not receptive to your feedback or becomes argumentative.
  • Issue warnings in keeping with company procedures. Follow the employee handbook’s path of disciplinary action. If possible, have a human resources department employee sit in on any write-ups or warnings.
  • Escalate to HR or the direct manager. If – in spite of your best coaching efforts – the team member fails to meet benchmarks as required, escalate the issue to the worker’s assigned department manager for further handling. Dismiss the worker from your team and replace her, if needed.

There is nothing to be gained by keeping an ineffective employee on your project management team. Even so, project team personnel problems frequently escalate due to a failure to plan for them. If there are no structural processes in the works yet, become instrumental in developing them. Until they become part of your company’s corporate culture, be prepared to be a coach as well as an internal project manager.