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We’ve all been there—you’re trying your best to avoid micromanaging your team, but the way they’re doing things (or not doing things) makes it seem like they want to be micromanaged. Some days, you can barely step out for a coffee before your team texts you in a panic with a seemingly urgent issue that can’t be resolved without your input.

What gives? How do you get your team humming along independently so that you being out for a week doesn’t send your clients and team into a tailspin? Here’s how: you need to learn how to manage people—without them even knowing it.

How to Manage People Without Them Even Knowing It

A major challenge of project management is learning how to manage people so that they can effectively manage themselves. These three main guidelines explain how to manage people so that you can propel your team to innovate and develop a sense of ownership and autonomy in their decisions.

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1. Set Expectations On What Requires Your Input

Let’s be honest: if your team is inundating you with requests for help, your current leadership style suggests that you don’t trust them to make decisions without you. You need to fix that—and fast.

Even for your own reference, it’s hard to know how to manage people if you haven’t clarified with your team what types of issues require your input. For example, do you care about the font that’s used for the graphic on the launch page? The tool that the team uses to manage internal workflows? You’re probably more concerned with changes that impact the schedule or budget than with how to define the nitty-gritty aesthetic and technical details of the work.

Based on your comfort level, client requirements, and the nature of the project, draw a line in the sand about what types of issues require your feedback before the team makes a move. Then, stick to your word. Any backsliding on your part will cause confusion and start the avalanche of requests afresh.

2. Reinforce Your Expectations

If you’ve clarified your expectations and the team is still not abiding by these guidelines, you need to teach them to uphold their end of the bargain. Since you’re so awesome at what you do, it’s only natural that people will want to take the easy way out and let you do the hard work of weighing possible options and making a decision. This is OK if you have a new or junior employee learning the ropes, but beyond a certain point, you need to give your teammates the exposure they need to grow.

Of course, there will always be someone on your team who is persistently dependent. If you need to know how to manage people who are asking for too much management, my advice is this: turn the tables on them. The next time someone asks you how to outline the report they’ve spent the last two weeks researching, fight the urge to reveal your incredibly strong personal opinion on this point, and instead ask them for their take.

If they aren’t getting the hint that this is their time to shine with their decision-making brilliance, point out to them what they are doing. They may not even realize it. Ask them why they still feel the need to consult with you about this and reiterate that you trust them to come up with a kickass solution all on their own. Most of the time, self-confidence (or force of habit) is the culprit, and you need to allow some time for your team to build those skills, particularly if you’re the coach on an agile project.

I’ve had a few experiences, however, where no amount of “What do you think?” achieves the results I had hoped for. At this point, you may need to take stealthy project managing to the next level: if your team is constantly barraging you with IMs, go offline for a bit (Yes, this is possible! The world will not end, I promise!). Close your door. Do whatever you have to do to signal that you are unavailable. Before you do, however, set the expectation that your team needs to come up with a solution on their own that delivers XYZ, with a clear deadline.

It can be tricky to figure out how to manage people in this hands-off way while still avoiding giving the impression that you are ignoring them—which is definitely not what you are trying to accomplish. For this, set up weekly one-on-one meetings with each of your teammates. Having a designated time to meet teaches them to hold their questions until you are available and hopefully minimizes the number of unnecessary requests you might have otherwise received. If they come to your one-on-one and don’t have anything to discuss, end the meeting early. I’d be surprised if they weren’t prepared with a list of agenda items the following week. This is another subtle way to teach your team to be the drivers of their own careers.

3. Teach Your Team To Fish

You know the proverb: give someone a fish, and they have food for a day. Teach someone how to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime.

In the example above, a team member asked you how to outline a report. Whether they knew it or not, they were identifying a broader issue that would benefit from resolution. Namely, if the project had a deliverable template, the team wouldn’t have to consult with you when initiating a new assignment. Particularly when you’re managing an agile project, this is a perfect fish teaching moment. At your next daily standup, let the team know that you’ve observed some inconsistency in the deliverable format and task them with implementing a solution by next week. Then, stand back and await the results. In learning how to manage people in this way, you may be surprised at what your team comes up with on their own, which has cascading benefits for your projects down the line.

Something similar happened recently on one of my projects. When the team brought the issue to my attention, I felt like I was in one of those “choose your own adventure” books you used to read as a kid:

  • Option 1: Fix the problem yourself. That’ll be faster and more efficient.
  • Option 2: Tell the team what to do. You know the client so well that you already know they’ll love the idea you came up with.
  • Option 3: Let the team know there’s a problem. Resist the temptation to engineer a solution, and let them decide how to fix it.

Sure, Options 1 and 2 certainly offer the paths of least resistance—but when you flip to page 100 in your continuing adventure, you’ll see that your solution worked for a while in the short term, while sinking the project in the long run:

  1. In Option 1, you burned yourself out. The project failed because you made yourself so indispensable that you never got the chance to strategize about the anticipated budget shortfall. You focused on the details, and not on how to manage people and projects—the core of your job as a PM.
  2. In Option 2, the team delivered a winning solution, but they never progressed in their abilities. The high performers started to resent you. The weaker ones had their growth stifled. Turnover ensued, and the remaining team members failed to trust you—or each other. The project suffered.

Dramatic? Maybe a little. But the point is that, when I told my team that they needed to deliver reports more quickly, they created a style guide and instituted an internal quality assurance process. The solution was more creative and complete than anything I could have come up with on my own. The time I spend in review has decreased by 10%, and everyone on the team now has a common understanding of what needs to get done. Trust your team to manage the work, and they will trust you to lead them.

Enjoy The Journey

Learning how to manage people—and projects—doesn’t happen overnight. That’s part of what makes it so interesting! Project managing your team requires repetition and cultivation of patience and trust. For those of us on agile teams, it’s important to remember that agile is an iterative process but one that is also driven by individuals. If you as the agile PM succeed in playing a more hands-off role, the team will learn to work it out for themselves (with a little guidance from you). Who knows? You may even be able to break for a coffee—with or without your team—in peace.

Trying to manage your team through organizational or team-based change? Read more about how you can lead your teams through these transitional periods here.

Sarah M. Hoban
By Sarah M. Hoban

Sarah is a project manager and strategy consultant with 15 years of experience leading cross-functional teams to execute complex multi-million dollar projects. She excels at diagnosing, prioritizing, and solving organizational challenges and cultivating strong relationships to improve how teams do business. Sarah is passionate about productivity, leadership, building community, and her home state of New Jersey.