Responsibility Without Authority – A Toxic Combination. Any Advice?

We recently (well two years ago, now) went through some layoffs, and managers seemed to be the primary targets. It made sense, because at the time we had as many managers as we did designers. When things started to look a bit better, I was promoted to one of the vacant manager positions… kind of. I have most of the responsibilities of the person that I replaced, but pretty much none of the power. I work on all of the bigger projects, and am expected to lead the team, but nobody actually reports to me, and I can’t exactly direct anyone. I can suggest things, but nobody has to listen at all. It’s turned bad quickly.

The other people on the team resent the fact that I am working on the bigger projects, because I’m not looked at as a manager since I don’t really have managerial power. I’m looked at as a peer that gets all of the “good” projects and recognition that comes along with them. When I do try and direct projects, it’s received as if I’m a know-it-all that is trying to get my hands in their projects, not that I’m a director trying to help make things better.

I’ve tried on multiple occasions to bring this up to my boss, but she kind-of brushes it off. She plans on making changes, but nothing ever actually happens. All the while, things get worse and worse on the team. There is a real negative vibe, and I want to fix it, but I have no bullets in my gun. Every time I try and talk through things, it falls on deaf ears, and things go back to normal, because why should they listen to me? Who am I to tell them what to do?

10 thoughts on “Responsibility Without Authority – A Toxic Combination. Any Advice?

  1. Karen

    Been there, done that…yep, a real no-win situation. Seems at first like, “hooray, I’m finally getting somewhere in this job!” and then, “what am I doing wrong? am I not cut out for management?” All I can say is you figured out the real deal a lot faster than I did…

  2. ugh

    I know exactly what you mean. I have been in this exact position for about 5 years now. I just had to “let it go” and just not help, i.e. interfere as some would see it, in other projects. The drawback is that I still catch the heat when someone else makes a mistake. Ususally the whole group gets repremanded for the fault of the designer that made the error and would not take direction / help from anyone along the way. This is an ego issue around here. I have given up. Just do my job and shut up. It is a meager existance for a creative group but it is what it is. Boss doesn’t care. Just brushes it off just like yours.

    1. Andy Epstein

      Lord!, I wouldn’t want to be in your skin, or worse, be on your team. Unfortunately, your reports are probably feeling your vibe and it’s reinforcing theirs, resulting in a dismal vicious downward spiral in morale.

      I know it can be tough in the corporate world – I’ve been in some horrible situations, but I can’t believe you don’t have options other than the one you’ve chosen – which is to give up and tune out. At the very least, you could look for a job where you’re efforts and talent will be appreciated. There may be other courses of action too. I just responded to the original post on ways to get the support you’ll need to raise the bar for you and your team.

      I can’t imagine you want to become one of the hacks and clockers I spoke about in last week’s “In-house Issues” post. Give it a shot, man. The fact that you took the time to read and respond to the post tells me you actually do care about making things better for you and your team.

      1. ugh

        I was just commenting on how similar our situation actually is. It is probably not as bad as it sounds in reality, but after 5+ years of it I tend to agree with you. Perhaps there is a better position for me out there. Crazy thing is, I am happy enough with my position and have made peace with our unorthadox corporate structure. I am just continually frustrated with the actions and attitudes of a few bad apples. I have tried to lead by positive example but it falls on deaf ears b/c there is too much of a “do just enough to get by” mentality by these particular co-workers. I have no official direct reports but I am expected to check work of others etc. to ensure quality. But often these guys just bypass me and release their work unchecked, often with mistakes, and I in turn receive part of the blame for the mistake. To me, it is clear that I am being “bypassed” in this regard b/c the designer does not want to take the time to make necessary corrections to make their work accurate and complete. With a vitually absent boss that we all report to equally nothing seems to change. So therefore, yes, I have “given up” on trying to change the pattern. Thanks for writing and I’ll read your response post as you mentioned for some insight.

  3. Kevin

    This does sound familiar. I was in the same boat a few years ago when I was suddenly elevated into the new role of “creative director” rather suddenly. I was in that same limbo between resentful co-workers and disaffected management.

    From my experience, there is no quick fix. You can’t talk through this. You have to work through this. You can only succeed in this role by becoming an effective and respected leader.

    You won’t become an effective leader by relying on “bullets” of power like responsibility for reviews, disciplinary actions, etc. Ultimately those just add to the resentment.

    Why should they listen to you? Not because of your title, but because you are knowledgeable, experienced, creative, intelligent and supportive. Who are you to tell them what to do? You are their leader, their mentor and their advocate.

    If you can build a climate of professional respect and dedication to creating great work, then the authority you seek – and a genuine authority at that – will come naturally.

  4. Scott

    I’m dealing with this very problem right now. I thought I saw some light but it quily faded when my manager and road block left and someone new came in. However the new person just wants to do things the same, all the while saying that ‘things will change as soon as we figure out where we are.’

    I have news for you the sooner we have clear leadership and direction the sooner we can find out where we are.

    So as mentioned above, I just do my job and lay low, all while cultivating new opportunities at other firms.

  5. Andrew

    I have a similar problem with influncing and directing design projects for print. I am not in a managerial position, but I’m the main designer on print projects. I find that my professional opinion too often falls on deaf ears. There are many non designers in the company I work for who obviously think that their opinion is more valued than mine. Recently, I overheard a senior manger talking about my work saying “Graphic designers” always tell me that you can’t do what I suggested – which was actually nonsense. I even had an argument with my direct manager (also a non designer) as to why we shouldn’t send £1000+ print job in a word doc. format rather than creating something more slick in my design software – I couldn’t believe I was actually having the conversation! Anyway, rant over and back to work 🙂

  6. Andy Epstein

    As you can tell from the responses to your call for help, you’re not alone. Many in-house designers find themselves promoted to management positions, not only without having had any management training, but having to struggle with an apathetic or oppositional manager as well.

    If you’re looking for a silver bullet to your problems, walk into the restroom, splash some cold water on your face and look in the mirror – it’s you. You absolutely have the power to address this situation in spite of the handicaps you’re forced to function under. It will mean adopting some unfamiliar and uncomfortable habits and behaviors. No one is a born leader – everyone has to learn how to do it. That’s not to say everyone can, and some will learn more quickly than others, but you should give yourself every chance to find out if you’re up for the task (the fact that you chose to ask for help leads me to believe you’ll be a successful leader).

    First, find a mentor. If there is someone in your organization whose leadership style you admire and respond to, seek them out (it doesn’t matter whether they’re a designer or not – what you’re dealing with right now is not a design issue). If there is no one in your company look to a friend, associate or past teacher – just make sure it’s someone whose judgment regarding management issues you respect, that they’re committed to helping you and that they’re accessible.

    Second, join a local design group. You’ll find peers who have been in similar situations and who will be able to offer you advice based on their own experiences. I’d recommend AIGA because I know that the depth and breadth of their resources and their focus on supporting designers in difficult business situations would provide you with excellent support.

    Third, look at training opportunities. There may be courses that your company offers, you may want to audit classes at a local college or university and various design organizations such as InSource, DMI, HOW and AIGA offer pertinent seminars. (The upcoming In-HOWse conference would be an excellent opportunity to get a turbocharged dose of inspiration and support)

    Finally, research books on management and leadership to find which resonate with you. I like audio books because the content sticks with me better if I hear it rather than read it and I can listen to them during my commute to work.

    It’s important to remember what one of the other responders to your post pointed out – that it will take time – time for you to become a good leader and time for your manager and reports to figure that out.

    I realize that I’m not giving you specific advice on how to deal with your challenge but that’s because there are many nuances and details that need to be teased out of your unique situation that will determine your best course of action. What I’m attempting to do here is get you in a position where you believe you have the ability to effectively address your problems and then offer suggestions on how to get the focused ongoing support that you’ll need to realize your goals. Good luck!


  7. Kelley

    Your boss is not going to change up the actual reporting structure, unless you prove you can manage other designers. Providing art direction and managing others can take two different hats, especially in-house. I agree with a lot of the advice here, it will take time to develop your managing style and leadership skills to bring the team around to following you. But it can be done!

    You have to build their trust and respect for you so that you can lead them. You can start by going out of your way to show them the trust and respect you have for them and leading by example, genuinely. Show them you care about there personal and professional development consistently. Ask them questions, show interest and support in their work and talents. The goal would be getting them not just to listen to you, but to want to come to you for direction.

  8. linda

    I am not in the design industry but have experienced this same situation. This is a management problem. If the folks in charge do not value or show the staff that they value you as a manager my supporting your ability, authority and responsibility than you will not succeed. Neither will they, I might add but they do not know that.

    Placing one’s self in these positions is difficult to see from the outside. Unless you know the management of the company and how they work-usually a pattern of poor mgt practices has emerged before- you cannot protect yourself from falling into the same trap as others have.

    Once you recognize it, you do have options and need to determine what is important to you for survival of your pocket book and head. You can compromise if that is what makes you happy while you look for something else or quit and look for something else or cause management-such as they are-to let you go.

    Just recognize that you have a choice. You don’t have to be tortured on the job to live.