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Authorized to Manage – Expert Authority (#5 in the series Authorized to Manage)
By Thomas Cutting

This is the fifth in a series looking at Positional, Referent, Reward/Penalty and Expert types of authority, their use, abuse and challenges.

It’s not what you know…
It’s who knows you know it.

Expert Authority

Expert Authority is based on the respect gained for your abilities. If you can earn the respect of your team and management you have the highest level of achievable authority. No, this isn’t the form of respect demanded by Al Capone or a dictator gained by roughing people up. This respect is earned by successfully managing projects and displaying your knowledge. It results in people wanting to work with you because of your abilities. They perceive you as a success and look to you for knowledge and direction.

In order to obtain guru status you need to consistently demonstrate your abilities. A history of successful projects shows your management strengths. Or, if your expertise is your knowledge you have shown it by always having useful information or offering sage advice.

You can also achieve expert authority by the acknowledgement of another authority. Gaining certification by a governing body adds credibility as offered by the initials PMP, CPA and PhD at the end of your name. Since everyone knows that idiots can get certified, you will need to prove your abilities match your credentials.

Because perception is a big part of this authority type, being published can bump you up on the expert charts. One individual I was attempting to mentor hardly gave me the time of day until he found out I was published in Computerworld. Somehow in his eyes I suddenly became a genius. Even though I was giving the same instruction as before, he was suddenly listening because now I was someone.

Appropriate Uses

I’ve mentioned two different types of expert authority. One is based on your knowledge in an area and the other is based on your success. From the knowledge perspective, share it with those that need it. Mentor people and keep other projects from hitting potentially deadly potholes. This can add referent authority and give you a stronger position. It also highlights your abilities and teamwork. That in turn may result in increased positional authority as more responsibilities are handed to you.

Your success can be used to obtain the best resources for your projects or even allow you to request better projects. People want to work for successful project managers and management wants their best people on challenging projects. To everyone it seems like a win-win situation.

Abusive Uses

There are times when even the guru is wrong but by sheer strength of their expert authority no one questions them. Getting people to blindly do something without question qualifies as abusive use.

Another form of abuse is withholding your knowledge or ability with the purpose of negatively impacting a project, group or individual. Whether you are doing it for personal gain or to just be a pain, your motive is an indication of misuse.


The most annoying challenge with expert authority is another genius. When you have dueling gurus, people look toward other forms of authority to determine who to follow. It is important to remember that there is a chance, however small, that you are wrong. Play your cards accordingly. Expert authority starts to unravel if you mess up too many times.

A change in leadership can also signal problems. When someone comes in that doesn’t know your abilities or history of success they may question your expertise. It just means you have to prove yourself all over again.

One thing to remember, just because someone disagrees with you it doesn’t mean they are challenging your authority. Further discussion may result in an even better solution.

Thomas Cutting, PMP is the owner of Cutting’s Edge ( and is a speaker, writer, trainer and mentor. He offers nearly random Project Management insights from a very diverse background that covers entertainment, retail, insurance, banking, healthcare and automotive verticals. He delivers real world, practical lessons learned with a twist of humor. Thomas has spoken at PMI and PSQT Conferences and is a regular contributor to several Project Management sites. He has a blog at (

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