Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Manage When You’re Not the Manager

For the longest time, all I wanted to do was get out of management. It took years (and some major convincing of a recruiter), but eventually I transitioned into a non-management role.

Well, wouldn't you know it? You can take the girl out of management, but you can’t take the manager out of the girl.

A year after I started in that position, two brand new, fresh-out-of-college newbies joined the team. And while I wasn’t technically their manager, to get them on track, I had to take on an auxiliary managerial role. After all, I was out there with them in the trenches (er, cubicles) while our boss was often in meetings or behind the closed doors of her office.

Maybe, like me, you’re the senior member of your team. Or maybe you’re the point person for a big project. There are plenty of situations at the office where you may have to showcase your leadership chops—even if you don’t have the title to match.

But it’s a delicate balancing act. You don’t want to overstep your boundaries and risk your relationship with your peers, and you don’t want to assume too much of that managerial responsibility—because, well, you’re not the manager.

If you’re caught in the middle, here are a few tips.

Take on the Role of Teacher

Caveat: When the Opportunity Arises

One of the many roles managers play is coach. They help their employees improve by giving them feedback, pointers, and advice for succeeding in the future.

When you want to display management skills, this is one of the easiest to demonstrate—because as the leader of a project or the senior member of the team, other employees will often approach you for help.

The key here is to actually wait until you’ve been asked. The last thing one of your co-workers wants is to have you peeking over his or her shoulder, constantly offering up unsolicited advice: “Actually, that’s not how you’re supposed to do it.”

But when the opportunity presents itself, go for it. My newbie co-workers would often ask me questions about the assignments they had. I’d explain the process, then make sure to let them know they could come to me if they needed any further help. I wanted to offer myself as a resource in a way that would make them want to keep taking me up on it.

Learn How to Work With Everyone

Caveat: Unless the Nut’s Too Tough to Crack

Managers have to work with a wide variety of personalities—from the overachievers to the slackers to the average bears. They have to get along with the employees who constantly make jokes, the ones who complain, and the ones who tend to keep to themselves. In a manager’s eyes, they’re all equally important and deserving of attention.

You can emulate that managerial spirit by embracing this all-accepting attitude. Instead of flocking only to the people you naturally click with, strive to get to know—and get along with—each person on your team. With a stronger connection to those team members, you can better communicate your expectations, feedback, and advice.

However, if someone’s causing a disruption on the team—with, for example, never-ending sarcasm or far too many complaints to handle, let it go to your manager. It’s not your place to discipline your colleagues.

Hold Your Team Accountable

Caveat: But Pick Your Battles

Managers have the tough job of setting employees straight when they’ve made a mistake or the quality of their work starts slipping. But that doesn’t exactly sound like a responsibility you’d take on as a kind-of-but-not-really manager, right?

To some extent, a little confrontation can benefit both you and your peers—as long as you approach it in the right way.

For example, I once had a co-worker who worked closely with me to get blog posts created and uploaded to the company website. I wrote the content; he managed the graphics. He wasn’t my manager, but he had no problem holding me accountable when I was late with my end of the project or he thought it would work better with some adjustments. He always approached me respectfully, so I was always very open to what he had to say.

And, in the end, we both looked better for it—our work was done on time and up to the high standards management expected.

Do you need to chastise your co-workers for coming in late three days in a row? No. Some battles are better fought by the actual department manager. But by embracing respectful confrontation, you’ll show your co-workers you expect great work from them and that you care about their best interests, as well.

Advocate for Your Team

Caveat: Without Stepping on Anyone’s Toes

One of the most rewarding parts of being a manager is being able to advocate for your employees—to be their direct line to the higher-ups to get them the training, raises, and professional development opportunities they want.

As one of their colleagues, you may not have the same pull that your manager has with the executive team, but you do have the inside view into their daily lives. You’re on the front lines with your teammates and have a first-hand knowledge about what could make their lives easier.

Maybe you notice that a teammate is struggling with Excel, so you ask your manager if she knows if the company is offering any related training courses. Or, maybe you notice that your colleague is working long hours every night, and you simply assure him or her it’s OK to leave at a reasonable time.

By actively looking for what your co-workers need and advocating on their behalf, you’ll up their chances for success and show that you’re committed to making the team as great as it can be.

However, keep in mind that there’s a fine line between being helpful and stepping on your teammates’ toes. Your co-workers may feel perfectly comfortable advocating for themselves—like asking for the training they need or negotiating a raise—and may not appreciate you trying to fight their battles.

When in doubt, play it safe and only step in when you think it’s necessary and beneficial.

By staying in the managerial middle ground, you’ll maintain good relationships with your colleagues and boss—while still helping your team move in the right direction.

Photo of umbrellas courtesy of Shutterstock.