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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Managing Without Authority

Dear Crucial Skills,

I work for a Fortune 500 company that sets the bar high for management performance standards, and results are based on numbers and production. Because hourly employees are covered under a local union contract that mediates the actions that are punishable, many feel that their lack of following processes and methods is acceptable.

As a manager, I feel that my hands are tied because I cannot discipline their poor behavior, yet I am subject to discipline and performance reviews as a direct result of my employees’ failure to perform the job as directed. How can I get my employees to care about doing the job right when the union forbids formal discipline or accountability for failing to do so?

Thank you,
Confused and Bewildered

Dear Confused,

I appreciate the frustration you are experiencing. You are held accountable for results, but you can’t hold your people accountable. When they don’t meet expectations, you are the one who gets in trouble.

I’ve worked in organizations where this kind of frustration got so bad that managers resorted to fistfights. You could say they used crucial altercations instead of crucial conversations in their desperation to get performance back on track. As you can imagine, these slugfests had the opposite effect. They stimulated cycles of retaliation and revenge.

Before I offer specific advice, I’d like to describe your concern in the broadest way possible, because I think you are tapping into a leadership concern that is nearly universal. Here is the concern: As a leader, I’m given a heck of a lot more responsibility and accountability than authority. As a result, leaders are left managing without authority.

The good news is that managing without authority causes leaders to focus on building commitment and engagement, rather than settling for obedience and compliance. This is good news because most jobs demand initiative, judgment, and creativity, and these qualities can’t be mandated; they are the fruits of commitment and engagement. Here are a few steps for managing without authority:

Build Mutual Purpose. Begin by identifying broad goals you and your employees share. When I’m working in union environments, I often ask union reps and union members to write down their goals. Supervisors and managers do the same. Then they compare. They usually find several goals they share. At a broad level, these goals usually include “being competitive,” “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,” and “keeping my job.” These principles create enough common ground to get started. They are goals leaders and direct reports can pursue together.

Focus on Two to Three Crucial Moments and Vital Behaviors. Identify the highest-leverage changes your team can make and focus on achieving them. Turn this process into a small-scale experiment that involves your team—or at least the union reps. Your team’s goal is to prove that these small changes produce big improvements that further your common goals.

Here are a few examples of crucial moments and vital behaviors used at a transmission plant:

· I will notice when my machine is not working and shut it down before it produces scrap.
· I will perform basic diagnostic steps before calling maintenance.
· I will take basic actions—clean sensors, replace blades, and reboot—before calling maintenance.

Jointly Remove Barriers to Action. Some employees may not want to act on the vital behaviors your team identifies. Or, they may agree to act on them but then fail to follow through. When employees let you down in these ways, begin by giving them the benefit of the doubt. Assume they have a good reason, and ask them about it. Use the “5-why” technique to learn about the barriers.

For example, employees in the transmission plant didn’t want to clean the sensors before calling maintenance. That surprised us and we asked why. They responded with a lot of frustration and anger. It turned out that the coolant in the machines was black and gooey, and nobody wanted it to ruin their clothes. Our second question was, “Why is the coolant black and gooey?” The answer to that question turned out to be more complicated and solving it saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars as well as improved the lives of the employees who had to deal with it.

Jointly removing barriers demonstrates good faith—yours and your employees’. It also builds credibility and common ground. However, not every barrier can be removed. You need people to be motivated enough to overcome the routine barriers that make work, work.

Use Natural Consequences to Explain Priorities. Managing without authority means steering clear of your power. You don’t want to threaten to impose consequences—first, because you may not have the authority to follow through, and second, because you don’t want to be the reason the person does or does not comply. You want people to do the right thing because they understand and agree that it’s the right thing to do.

The way you motivate without authority is by explaining the logical reasons for taking an action. You explain the natural consequences—the logical results of taking or not taking the action. At the transmission plant, one of the natural consequences of cleaning the sensors themselves was that it would prevent at least a half hour of down time. The employees already knew this, but weren’t especially motivated by it. They didn’t mind working longer days. In fact, they liked the overtime pay. However, there were other consequences that were more motivating. For example, their department’s productivity was charted against similar departments across the organization and across the world. They were very motivated to show that they were just as productive as their colleagues in Mexico and in China.

I hope these ideas can help you get started. The best managers—even those who have lots of formal power—do their best to manage without authority.

I’d love to hear your suggestions for managing without authority. Share you ideas below.

Best wishes,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

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21 thoughts on “Managing Without Authority”

  1. David Williams

    When Structural Motivation influence has been deminished (Policy Authority restrictions) it should drive us to look at the other 5 influence areas to affect change. First start with the realization that this is not a quick fix to overcome what may be a systemic problem. “Lack of following processes and methods”
    Personal Ability: Perhaps a record review of training records and observation may show whether there is additional training required.
    Personal Motivation: How can you tap into their intrinsic value for doing a job well. Why shold they invest there time and energy?
    Social Ability: Involve the Union rep in the process.
    Social motivation: Identify Opinion Leaders and work toward a shared goal. Do you post productivity charts on a regular basis to tap into peer pressure?
    Structual Ability: Look at process flow and space utilization. Are there external factors working against your teams ability to get the job done. What are the Data Streams at the floor level? Are there visual cues to encourage doing the right thing?
    Certainly don’t give up because you have little to no authority… because in reality you have a world of influence strategies to bring to bear on the matter.

  2. elsy mejia-carpio

    I would like to suggest to this manager to start taking classes regarding how to manage employees. It is easy to give excuses but when there is a Union there is a contract and yes there are issues that if employees do not follow the manager has the right to document each instance starting with a verbal counseling follow up by written counseling and so on. It is important that managers know the Union contract by heart in order for them not to feel intimidated by employees who do not care their responsibilities. Also Managers are in charge to write each employees Performance Plan and it is the manager responsibility to review it with the employee when appropriate and when managers believe employees are not performing at a fully successful level.

    Managers life will be easy is they recognize that they need to learn about behaviors and job performance. You can write up the employees for not doing the job according to their Performance Plan. I know it is hard for manager to recognize issues that are supported by the Union and those that are not.
    Other important reason is to learn how to recruit new employees in order for manager not to repeat same mistakes. Always apply “leasons learned” just flag it inside your mind.
    I always said that life in a company no matter which department or what kind of employees you manage, it is up to the managers to have a nice and pleasant environment to work for everyone under their supervision.
    Also managers shall be fair and do not need to show disparate treatment in an organization.

  3. Kyle Whitford

    Managing without authority-

    You suggest explaining rationally what needs to be done. Yet many times these people are not rational, literally. Ever tried to raise a teenager?
    Dave Logan hits the nail on the head when he says , when your audience consistently rolls their eyes at what you are saying, get a new audience.
    Your suggestions keep the struggle and frustration in place.

    Remember the story of Walt Disney going down to Orlando and secretly buying the land needed to build Disney World? Avoided the horror of involving that whole mess of folks who simply don’t get it and ain’t gonna get it.

    I’ve been among the troops enough to know your suggestions are being laughed at. Values don’t change just because of your intelligence.

  4. Heather Stinson

    I appreciate your response David. I think there are lots of folks who are in this position. I would add one thing though – my experience with disciplining union employees is that it is difficult, but not impossible. A manager has to be able to support the discipline with documentation of on-going performance and / or behavioral issues that the manager has attempted to help the employee solve. The best supervisory training I ever had was given by an employment lawyer who taught us how to address performance issues, how to document, and how to discipline up to and including termination.

    1. Janine

      Great advice. I will share mine. I have been “managing“ a team for a few years now. I put that in quotations because I have zero authority over this team, and they don’t even report to me. However, my role is directly affected by their work, and I need to guide them to make sure that things go well. In spite of the fact that I have no power over this team, in the last couple years, I’ve implemented well over 20 process changes with basically 100% compliance. Here is what I’ve found:
      1. Bring them in on the decision making for process changes. Whenever I wanted to change a process, I would certainly come with my own ideas, but I would also ask them for their thoughts, as well as background on why were doing things a certain way. I found people are much more likely to implement changes when they’ve been a part of the discussion.
      2. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate, and then over communicate. As the article mentioned, explaining the why behind the change and the natural consequences and continuing to bring that up multiple times in the beginning. I found that explaining it once is not enough.
      3. Give grace. In the beginning of any change, people make a lot of mistakes. Even with the most gung ho team, there will be errors because they’re humans. Give a lot of grace for these mistakes and assume that they are trying their best. If a certain mistake keeps happening, address it, but I found that once again, keeping an open mind when addressing it is key. It may be a motivation issue, but it could also be an ability issue. Sometimes, there are elements of the company structure/processes that may be getting in the way.
      4. Get relational. It doesn’t have to be too deep, but taking a little time to form a personal connection works wonders
      5. Praise privately and publicly. Every chance I get, I praise the team, either to the individual or in a group setting. I will also praise them even when they’re not present as well as in meetings with their manager’s manager. I give them credit for the success. This really matters for people.
      6. Open door policy and check ins. I let the team know that I always want to hear anything they want to share: comments, concerns, ideas, etc. I take all suggestions seriously and look into them. It isn’t always possible, but I respect their insights and always at least investigate. I also checked in frequently, especially in the beginning and asked if there were things I could do better to help them achieve their tasks.
      7. Take responsibility for failures. When things don’t work, the first question I ask is if I could’ve explained it differently or in a better way. This has helped me to be in a better headspace when dealing with issues. The team is also more receptive and less defensive when I go in humble.
      So, that’s what’s worked for me. A long comment, but hopefully it can help. In my experience, most people want to succeed and do well, they just don’t always know how (even if how sometimes seems obvious to me). As a deeply choleric person, I realize that this all sounds very ooey-gooey, touchy-feely, but, the proof is in the pudding. I get more cooperation with a team I have zero authority over than many managers with actual power, and the team has repeatedly expressed to anyone who will listen how happy they are since I’ve come onboard. This advice might not work for you, but, if you’re looking to make a change, it might be worth giving some of these a try.

      1. Grace Perez

        I can see why your team appreciates you on board.
        Thank you for sharing your valuable experiences.

      2. Rachel

        Janine, this is a great response full of valuable information. I also manage teams with no authority. However, I’ve trained most of them & encouraged them to view me as a resource. This has served very well in most situations.

  5. Stanley J Davis

    I believe the American worker wants to a good job. However, managment fails to resolve problems that employees face everyday and they are repeated day after day. I would recommend you review the W.Edward Deming site to really find out what continuoius improvement means. Then read Stephen M.R. Covwey book on “Speed of Trust” to find out that honesty, trust and soving problems to make it so the worker can get the job done will go a long way. You will find a change in attitude in the Union people and reps and you will become a team.

  6. Rebecca

    Having faced this type of situation on 2 memorable occasions in my management life, I offer this: it takes LOT of effort to reverse the momentum (or get the engine started) of intractable thinking and behaving. The outlined suggestions and steps are imminently doable and do produce change, but I found myself lacking the time to take the steps because the lack of productivity made immediate change an urgent priority. Escalation of the consequences was unacceptable; my managers washed their hands of responsibility for any institutional issues and were not interested in large scale, time consuming change strategies that would have fixed the productivity problem (similar to what was intimated regarding the sticky, black goo.) I’m a BIG fan of the processes promoted by your research – since they are research based – and recognize that urgency overrules best practices more often than not.

  7. Stacy Allen

    In every collective bargaining agreement disciplinary procedures are outlined. Management has the right to discipline its workforce. As a union rep I have found that management often does not do its job in following its own disciplinary policies by documenting poor performance. No union wants slack workers-it reflects poorly on everyone.A few bad apples perpetuate the stereotype of the “lazy” union worker, when the facts are the complete opposite. Confused and Bewildered would be wise to look into the specifc problems and not lay blame for lack of leadership on the union.

  8. Mike Wilson

    Stacy Allen is correct. What she points out is so well known that it is a banal assertion. Which makes me wonder…what is the real point of this “vital” “smart” entry? Looking back on it, the insights are a rehash of every promo piece about the fundamentals of Crucial Conversations, only this one is packaged in an anti-union rhetoric bag. Bashing workers as lazy and irresponsible so that the poor hapless manager, who got into that job apparently on the basis of naivete alone (or perhaps sex and race?), has to seek expert advice to solve one of a manager’s most mundane problems?

  9. David Maxfield

    I love the range of comments this answer has produced. I think they illustrate how common and complex these issues can be. I certainly don’t want to engage in management or union bashing. It’s too easy for each side to tell villain stories about the other–and, of course, there are just enough true “villains” to make these stories believable.

    I also agree that my answer could be seen as a rehash of Crucial Conversations. It’s a situation that demands every skill we cover, plus many from Crucial Confrontations.

    Several comments recommend diving deeper into the legal and contractual elements of the union/management contract–or building your understanding of the labor laws that apply. Yes, I think leaders need to understand the details of negotiated contracts. Otherwise, these contracts become an excuse for poor management and/or poor performance.

    Keep the comments coming!



  10. Bob

    I find it interesting how quick the union reps are to be defensive and to “strike back.” Confused and Bewildered did not say the employees were lazy or irresponsible. He did not even say he was blaming the unions for anything. If an employee is not following an outlined process and fails to perform their job as directed, this is a very measurable thing.

    Good leaders don’t blame or make excuses. They find a way to make things happen. Confused simply communicated challenges he is facing in which employees fail to follow processes and act as though it is acceptable. It sounds to me like he is not able to take the steps he would normally take to correct his employees, due to union rules. In this sense, his hands really are tied and he needs to find another way to get the job done. His job puts him in a position in which he must use his best judgment and skills to meet performance standards. I feel he is reaching out and finding resources to help him meet his performance requirements despite the challenges that are in front of him. This does not sound like a “poor hapless manager” to me. This is exactly what a good leader does.

    Whether it’s a union or non-union employee, these challenges do occur. These statements did not sound like anti-union rhetoric to me. I find it interesting that the comments became so personal and nasty to confused. I personally feel that comments like this reflect poorly on unions.

  11. Connie C. Khan

    This is the right blog for anyone who wants to find out about this topic. You realize so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I actually would want…HaHa). You definitely put a new spin on a topic thats been written about for years. Great stuff, just great!

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    […] You are held accountable for results, but you can’t hold your people accountable. When they don’t meet expectations, you are the one who gets in trouble.I’ve worked in organizations where this kind of frustration got so bad that managers resorted to fistfights. You could say they used crucial altercations instead of crucial conversations in their desperation to get performance back on track.As you can imagine, these slugfests had the opposite effect. They stimulated cycles of retaliation and revenge….[This] taps into a leadership concern that is nearly universal. …As a leader, I’m given a heck of a lot more responsibility and accountability than authority. As a result, leaders are left managing without authority.  […]

  16. LydiaP

    I have a similar problem, but I am a subordinate who is expected to get input from a VP on a certain document I put together monthly, but he doesn’t deign it important enough to even look at in a prompt manner. I am expected to meet a deadline, but I can’t light a fire under this guy to get it looked at. I have to push, and push, and hover and push. What can someone in my position do?

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