We have all experienced that moment when you need someone’s help to complete a project, but you have no formal authority to request that person’s assistance. And compounding the issue, the individual has no available bandwidth to take on extra work or requests. It seems this experience has become quite common, if not the norm, in higher education.
Many of us find ourselves in situations where we are tapped to lead because we show capacity for enlisting others in different tasks, even if we don’t have the title. Some examples of that could be leading a project for shared services where many departments are involved, working on a team focused on developing collaborative approaches to retention that deliberately go outside the usual silos of authority, or chairing a faculty committee where no faculty member reports to you directly.
Let’s examine the last of those situations and use it as an example on how to manage those moments when you have no authority over others but still need to lead. In this hypothetical circumstance, you are highly regarded by students as an innovative and creative professor, plus you have earned the trust and support of other faculty members in your college. Therefore, your dean has assigned you to head a committee of faculty chairs across the institution. The purpose of the committee is to improve the retention of first-generation students. As a result of your charisma and highly regarded reputation, you are viewed as a leader and somebody who can move people to consensus. You have also had the opportunity to work with several departments and leaders across your school and the broader institution. For you, acting as a leader, no matter the title, comes naturally.
The first couple of months go smoothly, and then you are faced with an impasse: the group is divided on how to manage some allocated grant monies. You are surprised about the many divisions within the group. As the committee leader, you are fully aware the group needs to reach an amicable decision by the end of the academic year. However, no matter what you try while facilitating the meetings, you quickly realize that every committee member has their own agenda. In addition, you have been informed that several committee members do not accept you in a leadership role. They view you as equal to them.
You are fully aware that you have no direct authority over any of the committee members. If you are leading without an obvious title, the key issue you must resolve immediately is how to direct people who have no incentive to follow your lead. Such individuals may not be open to receiving direction from you. They also might avoid your requests or simply respond with an adamant no.
Either way, you must develop another form of authority where committee members will cultivate the necessary trust to follow your leadership and take on tasks that you have requested. Being in a position without title-based authority, you must rely on building trust when people’s agendas have more differences than commonalities.
What should you do? You should focus on listening, being calm and proposing directions. Then you should:
Acknowledge each person. Focus on building trust by deeply listening to each member of the committee as individuals. Normally, building trust is more easily accomplished when people interact frequently over a period of time. But as the committee leader or chair, you might not have the luxury of time to build this type of trust. Instead, you probably have to meet a certain time frame to produce a successful outcome. Therefore, the focus of any discussion might gravitate toward the exact outcome required to reach the goal. We also understand that the other individuals have additional responsibilities beyond our request. However, we feel as if our need might be more important and it could help with their own respective responsibilities.
If you find yourself in this predicament, I recommend you take the time to sit down with each person individually to better understand their overall agenda and the fears and frustrations they might have. During those individual interactions, you should illustrate transparency and consistency. While listening and engaging with each person, take time to share your views and ideas on the subject matter. Illustrate how your ideas can be complementary, and use storytelling to show the similarities and differences between them. Encourage the other individual to share stories as well. Work together to find common ground and possible outcomes that everyone can find acceptable.
While engaging in these individual discussions, listen with empathy about the other person’s agenda. Do not be confrontational or dismiss their direction. When asking for assistance without having authority over the person, you should listen and watch for cues and key points to better shape your request. While doing that, you will learn about the person’s terminology, which should inform your approach when trying to find a compromise with the task at hand. Identify something you appreciate about them, and share ideas on how your agendas could be merged to effectively address the request from the dean’s office. Your goal should be to help build a shared agenda that can be championed by the other parties.
Establish and grow relationships. As you build trust, you will begin developing a relationship with each person. It is at this point when you as the committee chair can begin to collaborate with all committee members. When relationships are nurtured, it is easier to engage with the other person and request help. This is instrumental when you are dealing with someone over whom you have no authority. As the committee chair, you can use relationships to gain the necessary trust to have open and honest conversations in which all parties feel safe to share their thought and feelings.
In our example, as the committee chair, you could begin the conversation by acknowledging the various interests of all those involved and then transition the discussion to focus on the items that need further attention and understanding. People usually don’t welcome these difficult conversations. Therefore, as a leader without a title, it is important you lean on relationships where trust has prevailed, encouraging all involved to work together and learn how to accommodate and compromise. That calls for you to be the first person to accommodate and compromise when it will make a difference to the rest of the committee members. You might not have the title, but you have shown true leadership by your actions.
Lead to outcomes. During the final stage, the outcomes of the committee work are discussed, agreed upon, implemented and measured. At this point, you should acknowledge and provide public recognition and credit to everybody involved. Report the necessary details to the dean’s office, including how everyone’s hard work was instrumental in reaching the final decision. It is amazing how many times we work hard to reach a goal, and when it’s grasped, we forget to celebrate the process and the individual players that were involved.
As the committee chair, you must take the time to organize and participate in the final celebration that recognizes a successful outcome. We all have pressing matters to attend to once a group task has been completed, but you must realize that establishing and growing a relationship is the most important tool when it comes to leading without authority. It is the relationships that will allow you to push other people outside their comfort zone to complete tasks that aren’t assigned to them.
Elizabeth Suárez is director of the HERS (Higher Education Resource Services) Denver Institute.
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