Leading Test Teams When You’re Not A Manager

Leading Test Teams When You’re Not A Manager

You don't need formal authority to lead a test team

What Is Test Leadership?

When you think about test leadership, the first thing that may come to mind is a formal role that comes with some sort of authority. Early in my testing career, that’s how I saw things too. 

But past experiences have taught me otherwise. It is possible to lead a testing effort without formal recognition as conveyed by a job title. In this article I’ll refer to this type of leadership as “informal leadership” or “leading without formal authority.”

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, authority is the moral or legal right or ability to control. But how do you acquire it?

Test leadership is not a role but an accepted pattern of actions. I believe that by your actions you can exhibit the qualities of a test leader without having any formal authority over other testers or others on your team.

How Can You Recognize Test Leadership In Action?

Before I realised that test leadership did not have to come from an assigned role,  I noticed that some people used their authority to get others to do things without explaining why they should be done. It happened simply because team members recognized the authority of that person. 

I have also seen good examples of leadership when people WITH formal authority sought to inspire others by explaining why things were done the way they were done. Many of these leaders were also open to being questioned about their chosen course of action..

I learned a lot from seeing people work in both contexts: using authority simply to get your way and using reasoning and influence to explain the “why.”

During my test career, I’ve found myself acting like a leader even if I didn’t realize it at the time. These patterns of behaviour included: 

  • Mentoring and coaching others
  • Being a sounding board for other testers when they needed someone to listen to them
  • Introducing other testers to new ideas (like exploratory testing)
  • Doing presentations for other teams on how testing is done
  • Running workshops on various aspects of testing

When I saw a need or a problem that could be solved, I did something about it.  I’ve always found it pretty cool (and a bit odd) that people actually listen to me even if they aren’t technically required to do so. They listen to me and other leaders when our ideas and actions stand on their own merits.


Which Factors Pave The Way For Informal Test Leadership?

I’ve come to realise there are a few key factors that enable me to act as a test leader without formal authority.


Getting Tacit Support From People With Formal Authority

If you’re trying to introduce others to new ideas, or run workshops, or mentor and coach others, and you have someone with formal authority blatantly contradicting you, then you’re fighting an uphill battle.

However, there is still hope. I suggest you take time to sit down with them and talk to them - try to understand where their concerns could be coming from. Also, take the time to explain exactly what you are doing and how it shouldn’t threaten what they do. It could be a misunderstanding, after all, so taking the time to communicate with each other openly could really help here.

Of course, you’re unlikely to come across someone with authority who’ll openly admit to feeling threatened by your presence, but it’s good to take the time to build relationships with people who have formal authority so that your efforts to introduce others to new ideas are not in vain.

Learning To Listen

Time and time again I’ve learned that people don’t always want advice. Sometimes, they simply want a sounding board or someone to be there for them. For whatever reason, they may feel they don’t have someone like this at work who already fulfils this role or they may feel that they aren’t being truly listened to. 

As someone whose first instinct is to jump in and offer suggestions instead of simply listening, this was one of the hardest skills for me to learn.

Cultivating A Reputation Of Authority

If people believe you to be a leader who is trustworthy, open to others’ ideas, and can introduce new ones, then you are one. Perception is reality.

How do you cultivate the reputation of a leader? Here are the principles I’ve followed:

  • I’ve done my best to try and do the things the person I want to be would do.
  • I want to be trustworthy, so I make sure to keep my word.
  • I want to be open to others' ideas, so I really listen and make best efforts to understand their perspective.
  • To support my new ideas, I experiment and I don’t get down on myself if something didn’t work out. Instead, I try to learn from it.

Potential Problems Of Informal Leadership

It’s important to understand that being a test leader without formal authority is not easy.

Handling Resentments From Team Members

I’ve had a few people give me pushback, either explicit or implied. The common objections are “what gives you the right to do this and this?” or “who do you think you are?”. Even trickier, while people tend to be vocal about their support or enthusiasm for things, resentment can be a lot harder to read.

I found that giving yourself time to earn people’s trust helps. Reaching out and asking for their opinions and ideas also goes a long way.

Fighting Impostor Syndrome

Getting blowback from resentful team members has sometimes made me question myself. Let’s face it: I have the same job title as the resentful person. Are they seeing through me?

It took me time to realise that I wasn’t misleading anyone.  At the same time, sometimes I feel that the person others see is not the same as the person I feel that I am. But I know that I’m always my own harshest judge. 

When I get an attack of impostor syndrome, it helps to look back over work achievements and things I’ve done to help people. It gives a sense of “I’ve done this before, I know I can do this again.” 

Reckoning With Occasional Powerlessness

Any power or influence I have as someone without formal authority lies in my ability to connect with people. However, I have been in situations where I was repeatedly blocked or sent in circles.

It took me time to realise that trying to help people with certain tasks was threatening the existence of others’ roles. This was true even though the current setup made these simple tasks take a lot of time.

The status quo is a bit too comfortable for some people, even if it’s a bed of nails for everyone else.

If you combine that with people refusing to consider ideas from informal leaders, even when those ideas have some support from those with formal authority, then you are probably going to end up being frustrated. 

If you find yourself in this position, my first course of action would be to make sure people understand how their actions might make other peoples’ jobs more difficult. If that doesn’t work, then I would try to enlist clear, verbal support from people with authority. Finally, I would enlist support from managers who have the authority to force changes in other teams. This is not my preferred approach, but when all else fails (especially when other teams are suffering) then I do it.

Moving Forward With Informal Leadership

If you want to take the lead but don’t have the formal authority (yet):

Seek Feedback From Other Leaders 

If you have someone senior to you who can see what you are doing, they are in a good position to give you feedback on how to improve your leadership skills.

Work On Your Listening Skills

In my opinion, leadership isn’t just about solitary action. It’s about understanding others’ wants and needs.

Another great benefit of learning to listen is that often people need to feel heard and understood. If you’ve made a consistent effort to listen closely to others, then anything you do is more likely to be supported

The Power Of The Experiment

Change can be scary. 

By framing things as experiments, you can help people be more open to new ideas. If your team members know that what you’re doing is just a “trial balloon” or proof of concept, they’re more likely to welcome it, because:

  • You are likely to be open to feedback
  • It doesn’t have to be permanent if things aren’t working out
  • Aspects of your experiment can be adjusted until the desired outcome is met

It’s important to communicate clearly exactly what the terms of the experiment are and how it might change the team’s way of doing things. You should also communicate to your team how long the experiment will take and when everyone will know whether there will be a permanent process change. 

Finally, you should tell your team why you are conducting the experiment in the first place. Which problem are you trying to solve?


A Final Word From A Seasoned Informal Test Leader

I’ve found that being an informal test leader is somewhat daunting yet incredibly fulfilling. I have witnessed people do presentations for others on topics that I introduced them to in earlier presentations. I have seen people apply testing strategies from workshops I held. And I have seen people advocate for ideas to others after I initially had to convince them that those ideas were sound.

I used to think that to help others as a test leader I needed formal authority but experience has taught me otherwise. While a lack of formal authority will always have its challenges, there is also a certain level of freedom that it comes with as well. It leaves you free to help others experiment and learn as well.

Further Reading

Nicola Lindgren's profile
Nicola Lindgren

Quality Engineering Manager

I'm Nicola , a Quality Engineering Manager based in Malmö, Sweden. I'm constantly looking for ways to learn, grow and adapt. In the past, I have worked on projects in various industries including Education, Retail and e-Commerce.I was the founder of the Stockholm Software Testing Talks meet-up and a co-founder of the WeTest Auckland testing meet-up. I was also a frequent co-instructor for the BBST Foundations course. If you want to read my thoughts on software testing, feel free to check out my blog:

Explore MoT
Test Exchange
A skills and knowledge exchange to enhance your testing, QA and quality engineering life
Introduction To Modern Testing
Learn the Modern Testing principles that will help the whole team deliver high quality software
This Week in Testing
Debrief the week in Testing via a community radio show hosted by Simon Tomes and members of the community