Authority Does Not Always Equal Responsibility

authority does not always equal responsibilitySooner or later you’re going to run into this issue yourself if it hasn’t already presented itself as a problem on one of your engagements. You have a project, you have a team. You are ultimately responsible for the success of project and you are ultimately responsible for the work of the project team. You assign the work, you oversee the work, and you report all progress on the work. Sounds like a typical project, correct?

Now also consider where each individual team member stands. Each one of your team members has three or four other project managers that they are working for on other engagements and they even have a resource manager who is their ultimate authority, who is responsible for their performance reviews and raises, and who also is assigning them work from time to time that has nothing to do with your project. You have the work you need them to do. You have the assignments that you’re making. Beyond that, you have to hope they are understanding the meaning of the project and their role in its success to perform the work you need them to perform and to do it well. But you truly lack the authority to ‘make’ them do it.

Here is a common problem in matrixed project management environments…the responsibility you’ve been given is not in line with the authority you believe you need to accomplish the mission. The size of the gap between responsibility and authority partially depends upon the structure of your organization. If you’re in a purely functional organization – and in many cases, a matrix organization – you should not expect to be granted very much formal authority. The gap between responsibility and authority will be quite wide. To compensate for your perceived lack of formal authority, you’ll have to rely upon expert power (respect you can garner through superior knowledge or capability) or referent power (often accessed by practicing an excellent leadership style). You’ll also need to rely heavily upon your ability to influence and persuade.

If you sense that you may have problems with any of your team members and lack the authority to do much about it, then you’ll need to act proactively early in the project to help ensure the success of the team and the overall working relationship. Is this easier said than done? Well, yes…usually. But if you proactively take some early actions you will likely find yourself working more productively and less frustrated overall.

Be detailed in the definition of goals and relationships

If you lack full authority, then it’s critical that you gain compliance among your project team members. In order gain that compliance among your team resources, you need to clearly define the project goals, set project expectations, and ensure that your team resources understand the tasks assigned to them.

Check in with your team members’ functional managers early and periodically

By meeting with your team members’ functional managers at the beginning of the project you can get a better understanding the other commitments that those assigned to your project have during the course of the engagement. It also gives you the opportunity to gain an open line of communication with the functional managers. If assignment conflicts should come up, then even though you may lack the necessary authority over the project resource, at least you’ll have a good relationship with their functional manager, which may give you some negotiation footing when the need arises.


Nothing guarantees that you can ever make authority equal responsibility so as to eliminate this as an ongoing concern. But you can be aware and take these proactive steps. As project managers, we encounter so many things that can frustrate us and affect us even though they are beyond our control. The key is to look for ways to minimize these – especially when it comes to the project team members being managed because they are such a huge factor in the success of the project.

Brad Egeland
Brad Egeland

Noteworthy accomplishments:
*20 year provider of successful technical project management leadership for clients across nearly every industry imaginable
*Author of more than 4,000 expert professional project management and business strategy articles, eBooks and videos over the past decade
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*Named #1 in the 100 Most Inspiring People in Project Management
*Named a Top 10 Project Management Influencer to Follow in 2016
*The most read author of expert project management content on Project Times/BA Times for 2015
*Named most prolific provider of project management content over the past 5 years
*Noted for successful project management and financial oversight for $50 million Dept. of Education financial contract/program
*Chosen by the Dept of Defense as a subject matter expert (SME) to help select IWMS software provider for the largest IWMS implementation ever awarded

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