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Overcoming the Responsibility vs. Authority Conflict: Lessons in Collaboration

How do you manage working with others when you’re responsible for a project they’re involved with, yet you’re given limited or no authority to get the work done?

While I do not recommend this approach, I’ve observed it in many organizations due to reasons that involve internal politics, lack of role clarity, and unshared commitment to goals, to name a few. I’ve also seen people without management authority effectively hurdle the challenge of working with others. Here are examples and lessons learned from two former clients I had the privilege of serving.

  • The “consortium” included representatives of federal statistical agencies from different countries that voluntarily came together to share their work and improve the comparability of their data. What was fascinating was this group worked cooperatively together in addition to their regular job responsibilities and without any extra staff support and resources. They developed and agreed on a mission statement, strategic plan, and working groups to complete a special joint project. They also walked a fine line to work informally–without bureaucratic interference from their respective agencies–while maintaining the necessary formal communication with their respective senior managers to assure continued institutional support for their activities.
  • The “coordinator” was set up to implement a federally-funded initiative for social change that called for integrating the efforts of existing community partners. The coordinating organization in this case had no authority over the partners and no grant-making ability to fund their involvement; i.e., partner participation was purely voluntary. While the overarching mission for social change was closely aligned with the partners’ respective missions, the nonprofits involved were already stressed with more demands than resources. So to engage its partners, the coordinator applied the WIIFM (“what’s in it for me?”) principle by offering them the opportunity to:
    • maximize their respective organizations’ impact in support of the initiative’s overarching goals
    • have a voice in making a difference
    • network with other partners
    • enhance their community visibility.

Lessons Learned
The purpose, structure, and goals of the “consortium” and “coordinator” were vastly different. However, they shared one thing in common: they had to rely on collaboration, rather than authority, to operate effectively. Here are the common elements of how they made it happen:

  • Mutual respect for all the participants/partners involved
  • Aligning and reinforcing a shared mission, vision, and goals among the various players
  • Clarifying and communicating role expectations
  • Frequently sharing progress updates with those involved
  • Recognizing and celebrating individual and collective achievements.

These lessons are applicable in almost all situations, not just those with responsibility vs. authority issues. As communications consultant Kare Anderson says:

“For most of our lives we’ve been advised to lead and manage others. We’ve been taught to resolve conflict, influence, negotiate and otherwise attempt to get what we want from people … But what about the concept of us? More people would rather enjoy the camaraderie of smart collaboration than be lead, persuaded or managed.”

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