February 19

Deep-Dive: Leading without Authority

Product Managers find themselves in a pivotal yet challenging role. Charged with the task of bringing innovative products to life, they navigate a complex web of technical challenges, stakeholder expectations, and team dynamics. Yet, what sets their role apart is not just the breadth of their responsibilities but the nuanced art of leading the product teams that they work with – often software developers and user experience professionals – even though those colleagues traditionally don’t report to the Product Manager. Product management veteran, Dan Olsen, often jokes that because of this paradox, there exists a Product Manager’s Motto. It’s different from Spiderman’s motto, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Instead, the Product Manager’s motto is, “With great responsibility comes no power.”

This unique aspect of the Product Manager role demands more than just technical acumen or strategic foresight; it requires a deep understanding of human behavior, motivation, and the subtle dynamics of influence. In this essay, we’ll dive deeper into this notion. We’ll start with understanding Self-Determination Theory (SDT) and why it’s incredibly relevant to Product Managers. SDT suggests that people are most motivated, and perform best, when their needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are fulfilled. For Product Managers, applying the principles of SDT means creating an environment where team members feel a sense of ownership over their work, are confident in their abilities, and feel genuinely connected to the team and the project at hand.

We’ll even go deep within the wells of Eastern philosophy and the power of mindfulness. It’s about leading through example, persuasion, and the strength of one’s convictions rather than through directives or hierarchy. This approach not only fosters a more collaborative and innovative team environment but also aligns with the core tenets of SDT, enhancing team members’ sense of autonomy and competence.

Equally crucial is the ability to build empathy and trust within the team. In a role where direct authority is limited, the currency of trust becomes invaluable. It’s about understanding the individual motivations and challenges of team members, actively listening to their concerns, and validating their contributions. This empathetic approach not only strengthens team cohesion but also paves the way for more effective collaboration and problem-solving.

To tie it all together, we’ll meet “Alex” throughout and follow his journey as a Product Manager. Alex may be fictional for the sake of this essay, but I’ve met “Alex” (and have even been Alex) many times in my career – so the experiences are very real. 

By the end of this essay, I’m hopeful that you will be more equipped with a deeper understanding of what it takes to lead without authority, fostering an environment where innovation thrives, and team members feel genuinely engaged and valued.

Embracing Self-Determination Theory

Embracing Self-Determination Theory

In software and tech, the role of a Product Manager transcends mere project oversight. It embodies helping understand customers’ core problems and pain points – and translating those into technology solutions that help make their customer’s (and their users) lives better. But in order to do that, the Product Manager must help motivate and lead their team despite not having traditional authority over that team. Such a nuanced dance of influence and motivation calls for an intricate understanding of human psychology. Central to this understanding is Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a robust framework introduced by psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, contends that optimal motivation and performance are achieved when the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are fulfilled.

A good friend of the Product Collective team, Sean Flaherty, turned me on to SDT and its relevance in our world of product management. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see SDT and its principles featured throughout the half-day Influencing without Authority workshop that Sean is giving at the upcoming New York Product Conference! 

Within the SDT framework lives three core pillars: Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness.

Autonomy is the cornerstone of innovation in tech. It represents the freedom to explore, make decisions, and take ownership of one’s work. Product Managers can cultivate this sense of autonomy by democratizing decision-making and encouraging team members to take the helm on projects that resonate with their passions and skill sets. This empowerment is not about relinquishing control but about fostering a culture where every voice is heard and valued, where the team collectively navigates the roadmap, contributing to a shared vision.

Competence revolves around mastery and efficacy. It’s about ensuring team members not only have the necessary skills but also the opportunities to apply and enhance them. This could manifest in various forms, from targeted training sessions to mentorship programs, all aimed at bolstering the team’s capabilities. A Product Manager committed to nurturing competence might identify individual team members’ strengths and aspirations, aligning them with project needs to create a win-win scenario where personal growth and project success are intertwined.

Relatedness, the third pillar, speaks to our inherent need to connect and belong. In the context of product management, this translates into building a cohesive team culture, one that celebrates diversity, fosters collaboration, and acknowledges contributions. It’s about creating an environment where team members not only work together but also support and uplift each other, sharing in the highs and lows of the product development journey.

Meet Alex

To put a lot of what we’re dissecting in this essay into practice, I thought it may be helpful to introduce you to Alex. Alex is a Product Manager (albeit a fictional one) that’s working at a burgeoning tech startup (let’s call it StartupX). They just closed their Series B round of financing, and Alex is riding the rocket ship that his company has seemingly turned into. Alex is one of 10 Product Managers that were hired within the past year, and he’s been placed on a team of Software Developers and UX professionals tha, as a whole, has candidly been struggling. In the past, these teams have felt like work has simply been “handed down” to them, and they weren’t ultimately involved in the process. Each person on the team felt like their unique individual skills and strengths weren’t being properly utilized. And ultimately, because of all of this, nobody felt truly valued. 

Faced with dwindling team morale and stagnating productivity, Alex turned to SDT for guidance. By reshaping team meetings to encourage open dialogue and collaborative problem-solving, Alex empowered the team, enhancing their sense of autonomy. Workshops on emerging tech trends were introduced, not just as a means to stay abreast of industry developments but as a platform for team members to share knowledge and expertise, thereby fostering competence.

The introduction of “innovation sprints,” where team members could pitch and prototype their ideas, further cemented this culture of autonomy and competence. These sprints were not just about product innovation; they were a testament to the team’s collective creativity and ingenuity, a celebration of their diverse skill sets and perspectives.

To strengthen relatedness, Alex initiated regular team-building retreats, designed not as mere escapades but as opportunities to connect on a deeper level, to share stories, challenges, and aspirations. These retreats, coupled with an open-door policy and regular recognition of team achievements, cultivated a sense of belonging and camaraderie, transforming the team into a tight-knit community united by a common purpose.

Through these strategic initiatives, inspired by the tenets of SDT, Alex’s team underwent a remarkable transformation. Morale soared, productivity surged, and the team’s innovative output reached new heights. This narrative not only underscores the efficacy of SDT in navigating the complexities of leading without authority but also serves as a blueprint for how Product Managers could potentially unlock the full potential of their teams.

In embracing the principles of SDT, Product Managers can wield influence with finesse, guiding their teams through the vicissitudes of product development with empathy, insight, and a deep respect for the human spirit. It’s a leadership ethos that transcends the confines of authority, one that fosters an environment where innovation thrives, and team members feel genuinely engaged, valued, and connected.

Leveraging the Art of Quiet Influence

Leveraging the Art of Quiet Influence

Great Product Managers, at the core, are great leaders. And great leaders must find a way to use their influence to build up and motivate their teams. It is here, amidst the constant push for innovation and collaboration, that the principles outlined in Jocelyn Davis’s “The Art of Quiet Influence” find profound application. Drawing from ancient Eastern wisdom and the power of mindfulness, Davis offers a roadmap for leadership that eschews the command-and-control model in favor of influence without coercion.

Davis’s approach to influence is not about persuasion in the conventional sense but about the art of engaging and guiding collaborative work without relying on positional authority. This concept is particularly resonant for Product Managers, who often find themselves leading cross-functional teams without formal power over their members. The essence of quiet influence, as Davis illustrates, is the ability to inspire action and commitment through a combination of respect, empathy, and strategic foresight, all while maintaining a calm and composed demeanor​​.

One of the foundational tactics of quiet influence involves demonstrating care for colleagues. This encompasses a range of behaviors from being courteous and respectful in all interactions to showing genuine concern for the pressures and constraints others face. It’s about being available for advice or help, becoming familiar with other people’s roles and responsibilities, and offering support without expecting anything in return. This approach fosters an environment where team members feel valued and supported, encouraging them to contribute more openly and creatively to the project​​.

Let’s go back to Alex.

While Alex’s team ultimately found more success once Alex started utilizing the core pillars of SDT, it didn’t happen overnight. And in the early weeks of Alex joining the team, he was faced with a very real challenge – develop and launch a new software platform just in time for the big conference that StartupX was planning on exhibiting at, INDUSTRY: The Product Conference (sorry, I had to!).

Alex faces the challenge of uniting a team with diverse skills and varying levels of commitment. Drawing on Davis’s principles, Alex begins by focusing on building genuine relationships with each team member. This involves one-on-one meetings where Alex not only discusses project roles but also takes the time to understand each person’s career aspirations, personal interests, and current challenges.

Alex also implements regular “reflection sessions” where the team collectively reviews progress, discusses obstacles, and celebrates achievements. These sessions are conducted in a spirit of openness and mutual respect, with Alex facilitating rather than dictating the conversation. By consistently demonstrating care for the team’s well-being and valuing their contributions, Alex cultivates a sense of belonging and commitment among the members.

As the project progresses, Alex encounters a significant roadblock: a key feature is at risk due to technical challenges. Instead of resorting to authoritative demands, Alex gathers the team for a brainstorming session. Drawing on the quiet influence tactic of encouraging others to express objections and doubts, Alex creates a safe space for the team to voice concerns and propose solutions. This collaborative approach not only leads to a creative solution to the technical challenge but also reinforces the team’s cohesion and collective ownership of the project​​.

Through Alex’s application of quiet influence, the team not only successfully launches the new software platform but also emerges stronger and more aligned. The team members, having experienced the power of being heard and valued, carry this positive experience forward into future projects and products that StartupX launches. (Oh, and they killed it at INDUSTRY, too!)

The principles of quiet influence, as articulated by Jocelyn Davis, offer Product Managers a powerful alternative to traditional leadership models. By embodying these principles, Product Managers can lead their teams to success through a foundation of mutual respect, empathy, and collaboration, proving that the most profound influence often comes not from the loudest voice but from the quietest presence.

(By the way, I’m hosting Jocelyn Davis for a virtual fireside chat on Wednesday, February 21st to talk more about The Art of Quiet Influence – join us if you can!).

Influencing without Authority

Ultimately, the skill of influencing without true authority is indispensable due to the unique position product managers find themselves in: owning the product delivery while coordinating with teams that do not report directly to them. This dynamic necessitates a nuanced approach to leadership, where influence supersedes direct command, enabling product managers to align diverse teams towards a common goal.

Former INDUSTRY speaker, Sachin Rekhi has written about identifying four key constituencies that product managers must influence: the product team (engineers, designers, and testers), other product teams for integration purposes, cross-disciplinary teams for leveraging shared resources, and the executive team for securing ongoing support and resources. Successfully navigating these relationships is less about authority and more about the artful application of influence, a blend of science and intuition that, when mastered, can significantly elevate a product manager’s effectiveness.

In the post linked above, Rekhi also recommends three specific tactics to help foster this:

  1. Inspire a shared vision

    When team members understand and believe in the product’s purpose and potential impact, their alignment and commitment to the project intensify. For product managers, this means articulating a compelling vision that resonates on a personal level with each team member, transforming the project from just another task into a mission they are passionate about pursuing.

  2. Build empathy and alignment

    A high degree of empathy allows product managers to understand the motivations, challenges, and goals of their team members and stakeholders. By aligning the product goals with individual or team objectives, product managers can create a symbiotic relationship where progress towards the product’s success also fulfills personal and professional growth for the team. This empathetic approach fosters a collaborative environment where everyone feels invested in the product’s success.

  3. Invest in Relationships

    The foundation of influence is built on trust and respect, cultivated through genuine and sustained investment in relationships. Rekhi suggests simple yet effective practices like regular one-on-one lunches with team members as a means to deepen connections and build a network of support. These relationships become the bedrock upon which influence can be effectively exercised, as team members who feel valued and understood are more likely to contribute enthusiastically to shared objectives.

Back to Alex…

Despite Alex’s lack of direct authority over the cross-functional teams involved with launching the products that his team is responsible for on StartupX’s roadmap, Alex employs Rekhi’s principles to make sure each product launched is a success. He begins by hosting a series of workshops to immerse the team in the product vision, highlighting how each role contributes to a transformative user experience. Through one-on-one meetings, Alex identifies personal aspirations and aligns them with project tasks, ensuring that each team member sees a clear path to their own growth within the project’s framework.

When faced with integration challenges with another product team, Alex doesn’t resort to escalation but instead seeks to understand the other team’s priorities. He discovers shared objectives and crafts a proposal that demonstrates how collaboration on the integration benefits both teams, thus securing their buy-in. Alex’s continuous effort to nurture relationships, recognize contributions, and address concerns, gradually builds a culture of mutual respect and collective ambition.

By inspiring a shared vision, demonstrating empathy, and investing deeply in relationships, Alex not only continues to ensure that his team continues to stay current with StartupX’s roadmap, but also fosters an environment of innovation, collaboration, and mutual respect – turning potential obstacles into opportunities for collective success and personal fulfillment.

Building Trust and Empathy

Expanding on a core recommendation of Rekhi’s of building empathy and alignment, I’m reminded of Roman Pichler and his talk in the past at INDUSTRY. He offers 3 tips on how to listen more effectively in order to build more trust and empathy with your teams.

Empathy in product management transcends mere understanding; it involves an intuitive grasp of team members’ emotional states, motivations, and underlying concerns. This deep-seated empathy enables product managers to navigate the complexities of team dynamics, ensuring that each member feels valued, understood, and integral to the project’s success. Techniques such as reflective listening, where the listener paraphrases or summarizes what has been said to confirm understanding, and emotional intelligence training, which enhances one’s ability to recognize and manage both personal emotions and those of others, are crucial in cultivating this level of empathy.

Trust as the Bedrock of Team Cohesion

Trust within a team doesn’t emerge overnight; it’s the result of consistent, reliable actions and interactions that reassure team members of their leader’s integrity, competence, and respect for their contributions. For product managers, building trust involves transparent communication about project goals, challenges, and expectations, as well as demonstrating accountability for decisions and outcomes. Establishing regular feedback loops, where team members can express concerns and suggestions in a safe environment, further strengthens the foundation of trust.

Active Listening and Presence: A Deeper Dive

Active listening, as highlighted by Pichler, is more than a skill—it’s a commitment to fully engage with the speaker, setting aside one’s own agenda to truly hear and understand their perspective. This level of attentiveness signals to team members that their insights and experiences are not only acknowledged but also valued. Techniques to enhance active listening include maintaining eye contact, avoiding interruptions, and asking clarifying questions, all of which contribute to a more empathetic and trusting team atmosphere.

The Power of Genuine Curiosity

Genuine curiosity about team members’ ideas, concerns, and well-being fosters an environment where creativity and innovation can thrive. This curiosity encourages product managers to explore the “why” behind team members’ viewpoints, leading to richer, more inclusive discussions that can unveil novel solutions to complex problems. Encouraging diverse perspectives and celebrating the unique contributions of each team member reinforces a culture of inclusivity and respect.

Back to Alex…

Alex has been seeing a lot of success after incorporating all of these changes on his team. But it hasn’t been all roses. Especially at first, Alex was faced with a lot of resistance and skepticism. After all, this was already a very capable team, but one that’s truly struggled as a unit. Alex adopts a multifaceted approach to engage the team and align their efforts with the project’s vision.

Alex initiates “Empathy Circles,” a series of team-building exercises designed to enhance understanding and respect among team members. During these sessions, team members share personal stories related to their work, challenges, and successes, fostering a deeper connection and appreciation for each other’s roles and contributions.

Recognizing the importance of trust, Alex implements a transparent project management dashboard, providing real-time updates on project progress, challenges, and milestones. This transparency demystifies decision-making processes and reinforces Alex’s commitment to open, honest communication.

To further embed empathy and trust into the team’s culture, Alex introduces “Feedback Fridays,” a weekly forum for constructive feedback and open discussion. These sessions, guided by principles of non-judgmental listening and mutual respect, encourage candid conversations about project experiences, fostering a supportive environment where team members feel empowered to share and innovate.

Over time, the impact of these initiatives becomes increasingly evident. The team, once fragmented by doubts and differing agendas, coalesces around a shared purpose, driven by mutual respect and a collective commitment to the project’s success. The once-resistant team members become proactive contributors, offering innovative solutions and supporting each other through challenges.

It’s a testament to the transformative potential of empathy and trust in product management. By prioritizing active listening, genuine curiosity, and transparent communication, and by creating structured opportunities for team engagement and feedback, Alex not only overcomes initial resistance but also cultivates a dynamic, cohesive team capable of achieving exceptional results.

It’s also a reminder that these beliefs and actions aren’t merely aspirational ideals but tangible practices that can significantly enhance team dynamics and project outcomes – especially for Product Managers like Alex. And maybe you!

Summing it all up

Ultimately, the art of leading without formal authority stands as a cornerstone of effective leadership. This isn’t just true in product management, but also in life as a whole. All of these thematic pillars—autonomy, competence, relatedness, quiet influence, and the cultivation of empathy and trust—serves as a beacon for product managers seeking to inspire, align, and mobilize their teams toward shared visions and goals. By embedding these strategies into everyday practice, product managers can foster environments where innovation thrives, and team members feel genuinely engaged and valued, irrespective of the hierarchical dynamics at play.

As we look toward the future of product management, it becomes increasingly clear that the ability to adapt and lead with empathy, understanding, and strategic influence will be paramount. The landscape of product management is continuously shaped by technological advancements, shifting market demands, and the ever-changing needs of consumers. Because of this, the capacity for adaptive leadership—rooted in the principles explored throughout this post—will not only distinguish exceptional product managers but will also drive the success and resilience of teams and products alike.

And hey, if all of this helped Alex… it can certainly help you!


  1. What is the Product Manager’s unique challenge in leading teams?
    Product Managers lead without formal authority, focusing on influence rather than power to guide software developers and UX professionals.
  2. What is Self-Determination Theory (SDT) and its relevance to Product Managers?
    SDT emphasizes autonomy, competence, and relatedness as keys to motivation, crucial for Product Managers to create an engaging team environment.
  3. How can Product Managers apply SDT principles to motivate their teams?
    By fostering a sense of ownership, ensuring team members feel skilled and connected, and creating a collaborative culture.
  4. What role does mindfulness play in product management?
    Mindfulness and Eastern philosophy encourage leading by example and persuasion, enhancing team autonomy and competence.
  5. How important is empathy in the Product Manager’s role?
    Building empathy and trust is vital for effective collaboration, especially when direct authority is limited.
  6. How does a fictional Product Manager demonstrate the application of leadership principles?
    Through the story of “Alex,” a Product Manager at a tech startup, we see the practical application of SDT, quiet influence, and building team empathy. Alex tackles team morale and productivity challenges by implementing strategies that fulfill autonomy, competence, and relatedness, fostering an innovative and collaborative team environment.
  7. What are the core pillars of SDT?
    Autonomy, competence, and relatedness are the foundational elements that drive motivation and performance in teams.
  8. What strategies can Product Managers use to foster a culture of innovation?
    Encouraging team ownership of projects, personal growth, and a supportive community enhances creativity and productivity.
  9. How does quiet influence benefit Product Managers?
    It allows them to lead and inspire action through respect, empathy, and strategic foresight without relying on positional power.
  10. What are the keys to building trust and empathy within a team?
    Listening actively, showing genuine curiosity about team members, and investing in relationships are fundamental to developing trust and empathy.

Mike Belsito

About the author

Mike Belsito is a startup product and business developer who loves creating something from nothing. Mike is the Co-Founder of Product Collective which organizes INDUSTRY, one of the largest product management summits anywhere in the world. For his leadership at Product Collective, Mike was named one of the Top 40 influencers in the field of Product Management. Mike also serves as a Faculty member of Case Western Reserve University in the department of Design and Innovation, and is Co-Host of one of the top startup podcasts online, Rocketship.FM. Prior to Product Collective, Mike spent the past 12 years in startup companies as an early employee, Co-Founder, and Executive. Mike's businesses and products have been featured in national media outlets such as the New York Times, The Atlantic, CNN, NPR, and elsewhere. Mike is also the Author of Startup Seed Funding for the Rest of us, one of the top startup books on Amazon.


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