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Authorized to Manage – Positional Authority (#2 in the series Authorized to Manage)
By Thomas Cutting

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

Authority extends only as far as those under you allow it and only as long as those over you support it.

Positional Authority

Positional Authority is based on where you sit in the organizational chart. Also known as Formal Authority, it is bestowed on you by some entity. CEOs get their position from the board and are subject to their vote. Project managers receive their right to manage from an approved charter, statement of work or other defining document. The extent of their power is defined by the bounds of the project scope.

Although culture plays a role in determining which type of authority is strongest, positional is the easiest to gain and loose. Since it is given it can also quickly be taken away. If the project is cancelled your role disappears. It is also in jeopardy if the entity that granted it changes. This becomes painfully obvious if your company is purchased and you are in an upper management position.

Appropriate Uses

During the normal course of managing a project, positional authority is a great starting point. Using it as a basis to push the purpose of the project forward, treat your team with respect and they will generally adhere to it.

You can also use positional authority of others. I have started many emails by referencing the project Sponsor or VP of something or other. The higher the title, the quicker the response tends to be.

Abusive Uses

This is the most often abused authority. Misuses include your standard harassment problems and basic dictatorships but also encompass more subtle ones. One example is to push work onto subordinates. One manager I mentored complained because her manager had her creating status reports for projects she wasn’t even managing.


Challenges come from many different directions on this one. If people don’t believe you have what it takes to fill the role they will be reluctant to follow. One individual I managed used age as his criteria. He was fine with me leading until he found out I was 6 months younger.

Another challenge will come from those outside the context of your project or organization. From the project side resources are always an issue. Portfolio Management is the key for that (come back for the Matrix Organization discussion). Organizationally, if your Sponsor is a VP there is always another VP that may try to trump her power.

The biggest challenge, though, usually comes from the person who thinks they should have gotten your position. One of the questions to ask as you step in is who else was considered or had eyes on the role. Your formal claim to it won’t appease them. One way to get them turned around is to include them in more of the management activity. This is especially useful with junior people looking to move up. By giving them opportunities to grow and be mentored you will actually be using Reward Authority, but that is a topic for another day.

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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