Tips for managing nondirect reports

Project managers oversee initiatives from start to finish. Often, everything that falls under the umbrella of a certain project is in the purview of responsibilities given to the project manager. This can span from fundraising, budgeting and organizing to design, initiation and talent management. That last task is important, because while project managers may find themselves at the top of reporting structures, they are hardly ever alone.
Project managers depend on the other colleagues assigned to the project. Assigning tasks to others is generally essential.  It helps accomplish objectives when either the project manager doesn’t have the time, or potentially does not have the subject matter expertise needed for a particularly specialized task. Knowing this, many PMs hone their teambuilding and communication abilities—soft skills necessary to working relationships—to effectively engage with reporting employees.
However, a challenge is presented when PMs must oversee nondirect reports. Managers are able to foster rapport with employees within their own teams or departments, but a PM may feel a lack of authority when assigning tasks to an employee who does not ordinarily report to them. This is an obstacle that nearly every project manager will encounter at one point or another.
Students enrolling in the online Master of Science in Project and Program Management at Brandeis University are able to further study and practice the soft and hard skills necessary to manage nondirect reports. To start, here are some tactics PMs can begin employing to improve their effectiveness in interactions with nondirect reports:

Generate buy-in

While direct reports are already familiar with a project manager’s vision, workers coming from outside the team or division will be much less familiar with these characteristics, and less likely to engage. Frequent collaboration between team members on a project naturally generates the socializing needed to create relationships and common points of understanding. Newcomers can be put off or hesitant to enter unrecognizable structures.
PMs cannot assume a nondirect report’s level of commitment is above and beyond the base level expected of any employee. That can be a challenge, as a higher level of personal buy-in may ultimately determine performance quality and engagement. PMs need to cultivate a shared appreciation of the importance of the project, and the importance of the nondirect report to the project’s success.

Adapt style

Central to generating buy-in is interacting in meaningful ways with nondirect reports. Project managers must engage nondirect reports by tailoring modes of communication to the individual. Each nondirect report has a different understanding, motivation level, and capability. The PM must adapt and change management styles in working with each individual.
To affect this, project managers may need to deploy different styles of leadership in specific situations. The following examples scratch the surface of leadership styles from which one may draw:

  • Transactional leadership: Where employees are motivated by rewards for a job done well, and motivated to avoid the punishments of a failing effort.
  • Democratic leadership: Where PMs source opinions and input from nondirect reports and try to involve them (and therefore motivate them) in decision-making or other tasks.
  • Servant leadership: Where getting in the trenches and leading by example enables a PM to effectively inspire reports to achieve.
  • Transformational leadership: Where emphasizing mission and values motivates nondirect reports beyond material reasons.


Be tough if needed

A leadership style that some PMs don’t like to use is the autocratic approach, because by definition it can be rigid, punitive, unconcerned with feedback, demanding and strict. However, at certain phases of a project (for example, immediately preceding deadlines or launches) this approach may have applicability.
A stern style may have particular benefits if nondirect reports lack discipline or respect for the PM. However, managers need to pick their spots and navigate such situations carefully: PMs cannot be derogatory, abusive, retaliatory, or openly confronting. Instead, what this strategy requires is the reliance on position and influence to instruct, organize and supervise closely.

Engage external stakeholders

While a PM is not the boss of a nondirect report, a manager within the company exists who does oversee the individual. Engage with outside managing stakeholders in other departments or teams to better motivate a nondirect report.
The nondirect report’s manager will have insight into how to personally connect and communicate with a certain individual.

Always communicate

Regardless of the situation, it’s imperative that project managers communicate effectively with nondirect reports. Many specifics and intentions can be lost in translation, and this is a particular danger with nondirect reports who may not be familiar with processes and workflows. It’s up to the project manager then to ensure effective and efficient communication across the entirety of the project.

Continued education valuable to skills-building

For project managers familiar with the challenges of managing nondirect reports, pursuing further education may open the door to new tactics and ways of understanding talent management. Students in the online MSPPM program at Brandeis University benefit from a curriculum focused just as much on building these soft skills as the hard skills of project management. Contact us today to learn more.

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