When you're not 'their boss'

2015

Have you ever tried to get a six-year old to do something, only to be told “you’re not the boss of me!”? Sometimes, when we are leading projects or other virtual teams it can feel like that because we really are NOT the boss of them.

A growing reality for many of us today is we are tasked with getting work done when we don’t have direct reporting responsibility over the people on the team. We may be responsible for the success of the project, but we don’t hire, fire or even write the performance reviews of the people we have to manage. They all have “real bosses.” This can lead to confusion, frustration, and miscommunication. It doesn’t have to.

Here are some simple things to remember to make the situation less stressful:

A growing reality for many of us today is we are tasked with getting work done when we don’t have direct reporting responsibility over the people on the team. We may be responsible for the success of the project, but we don’t hire, fire or even write the performance reviews of the people we have to manage. They all have “real bosses.” This can lead to confusion, frustration, and miscommunication. It doesn’t have to.

Here are some simple things to remember to make the situation less stressful:

You can’t command, you can only influence. Just between us, this is true under almost any circumstances but it’s particularly true when you don’t have a direct reporting relationship. People will give you as much effort as they are motivated to give, and probably not much more. Keep people engaged and excited about the project and the big picture, not just the tasks involved. Help them see how their contributions will pay off.

Take the time to learn their work situation. Do you know their “real boss”? Do you know what other work they are expected to complete while giving their all to your project? If not, you could be creating a situation where they face competing priorities, and you’re likely to be on the short end of that competition.

People work best when they have social capital invested. Does your virtual team know each other? Are they in frequent communication with other members of the team, or have you created a “hub and spoke” situation where all communication goes through you? Getting together physically (if possible) is one way to help people get to know each other. There are also techniques such as using webcams, spotlighting team members, and encourage asynchronous communication to help the team build relationships where they’ll go out of their way for each other, hold each other accountable, and really do their best for the team as a whole.

Make it easy to communicate with each other. Not only does your team need the tools to communicate easily, but they need permission and encouragement. If you get a question that should be directed to another team member, facilitate that discussion. If time zones are a problem, make sure that people don’t feel isolated or cut off from the rest of the team.

The good news is that if you don’t rely on threats and coercion (if you can’t have them fired, you’ve really lost that leverage) you find other, more positive ways to inspire and engage your team. By acknowledging the reality of your team’s working relationships, you can pay attention to what really matters and focus on keeping people engaged and motivated for all the right reasons.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.