How to Influence Without Authority

Back in the good old days, if you were in a position of authority, you could just announce what needed to be done and assume it would be carried out. But times have changed.

As companies expand and become more complex, no matter what organizational structure is in place, people must work with each other across reporting lines. It doesn’t work to say, “Do it because I told you so.”

But were the good old days really so good? Hierarchical systems replicate parent–child relationships and create dependency. Worse yet, authority-based systems are a breeding ground for abuse of power and are prone to creating oppressive work environments.

Leading without relying on authority is a higher evolutionary skill. It supports developing adult relationships based on mutual objectives and creates work environments grounded in respect for human dignity.

8 Ways to Influence Without Relying on Authority

  1. Character – Your own character is your greatest source of influence. Do you lead by example and follow through on your commitments? Are you respectful, authentic and trustworthy? People will believe you are motivated by the common good and not personal gain.
  2. Expertise – Do you have content knowledge and experience? Are you a thought leader? Do you understand the process needed to accomplish the objective? You can influence by providing a clear logic, an explanation of the benefit, and reassurance that it is the right course of action.
  3. Information – Do you have access to valuable information? You can influence by providing data and proof.
  4. Connectedness – Do you form close relationships with people? Do they enjoy working with you? Do you engender loyalty? You can influence by appealing to shared values and your emotional connection.
  5. Social intelligence – Do you offer insight into interpersonal issues that interfere with work and help facilitate resolution of issues? People trust that you’ll be able to help them work together effectively.
  6. Network – Do you put the right people in touch with each other? Can you garner the endorsements of credible people? People will trust that you will get the support needed.
  7. Collaboration – Do you seek win-win solutions, unify coalitions and build community? People will trust that you can help them become a high performing team that accomplishes its objectives.
  8. Funding – Do you have access to financial support? If financial resources are required, it’s easier to influence when you can ensure adequate funding is available.

Build your muscles before you need them.

Too often we rely on one source of influence, and when it doesn’t work, there is no fall-back.  If you always influence through the logic of expertise, you will have little impact on those who are more open to an appeal from someone they have a personal connection with.

When you develop more sources of influence, you have more options; and you have the opportunity to step back and consider which is the best source of influence for a particular situation.

3 Guidelines for Influencing Without Authority

  1. Put it out there. Communicate clearly what you want. First be clear with yourself because if you’re not, it will be difficult to be clear with others. Then make sure you’ve been understood correctly.
  2. Be transparent. No hidden agendas. Don’t withhold information. Or if you do need to withhold information, provide an explanation of why. People respect a sincere attempt at influence and resent being manipulated.
  3. Do your best AND be willing to let go. If an appeal to logic doesn’t work, try a different source of influence such as an appeal to values, building a credible network of support, or obtaining financial resources. However, there’s a difference between influencing and driving an agenda. If you are too attached, you are less likely to be heard. At some point, if you have done your best and have not been successful, you need to let it go.

There are no guarantees.

When we move away from a control-base approach to leadership, not all efforts to influence will be successful.  Failing to influence does not mean you made a mistake. It might have been a good idea but the wrong time.  Or it might have been the wrong idea – maybe you had a blind spot or didn’t see a bigger picture.

When we shift from authority-based to influence-based leadership, we have to accept that we are not always in control. However, the reality is that we actually never were.


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55 comments to How to Influence Without Authority

  • If only modern managers and leaders understand how to create a positive influence without being authoritative, a lot of work place issues can be prevented.

    Strong character is the starting point of influence and it often stems from a leader’s awareness about self. I have seen that leaders who are congruent in their thoughts, words and deeds lead from their core. They are not two different individuals when at work and at home.

    I think a lot of points you mentioned (1,4,5,6) boils down to emotional intelligence – awareness about the self and about others.

    Thanks for this wonderful post!

    • I agree, Tanmay. This seems to be a universal leadership issue. But it just doesn’t work in a matrix environment. I think that’s why they sound great in theory and are so difficult to navigate in practice. I always appreciate your insights, Tanmay. Thanks for sharing them here.

  • It would be great if companies developed cultures that encourage and support the behaviors you’ve outlined. Regrettably, they do not, but all is not lost. If each of us behaves as you describe, culture can be changed and re-developed from the ground up. Grass roots efforts can really work.

    Thanks for the guidance.

  • Steve Keating

    Great post. Today’s leadership most certainly is not our daddy’s leadership. I’ts absolutely true that we can lead without authority. In fact, most great leaders do. But what’s also true today more than ever before in that without influence you have no real authority over anyone or anything.

  • Hi Jesse – this is very pertinent today as many organisations become ” flatter” and we are seeing an increase in virtual teams where employees are required to exert influence over situations in which they have no hierarchical authority (traditional vertical hire/fire/assessment structures)

    As a search sepcialist I actually see it as a very special and separate skill worth noting. It seems to me to bestrongly related to effective interpersonal skills and credibility.

    Excellent tips as always. Thank you!

    • I agree, Dorothy. We have been teaching leadership skills based on the idea of formal reporting relationships. Now I think we need to broaden our focus and help develop “influencing skills.” I too see this as a major issue in flatter organizations and ones that are spread out geographically. I find people in the United States reporting to someone who lives in Germany, and that person reports to someone who lives in India. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and validating this issue

  • Beth Wilkinson

    Jesse,
    Thank you for discussing this topic. I am more convinced than ever that it’s imperative to influence based on your leadership as well as backing it with sustainable data.

  • Thanks for the relevant information Jesse. I have been pondering for some time the relationship between influence and leadership. More than ever, leadership is about influence rather than authority. Would you say that all influence provides leadership? I’m thinking of examples where technology and social media have provided tools for influencing as never before. The Arab Spring is one example. How do influence and leadership interact and how are they discrete?

    • This is a great question, Cheryl. I think about it also. In part, it depends on how you define “leadership.” Some people say “leadership is a process of influencing others to achieve a desired objective.” That is a little too sterile and transactional for my own taste. Others see leadership as being in charge or commanding. For them, both leadership and influence would be about attempting to get others to do what you want, but leadership would be stronger.

      I see leadership differently. I think of leadership as going somewhere and energizing and supporting others to join. From that viewpoint, leadership is about serving and supporting, removing obstacles and providing resources, and building skills and capabilities in order to enable people to join the journey. I do think there is some attempt to influence in this definition of leadership because you are painting a picture of a possible future to enlist others to join. But it works best when then canvas is left unfinished so others can participate in its creation. Leadership becomes a collaborative effort and could be viewed as a dance of sorts. This has been my own experience when I’ve been in leadership positions. In some ways, from this perspective, there is no difference between leadership and influence. In fact, when I toyed with the title of this post, I considered “Leading When You’re Not in Charge.”

      Another thing to consider is the relationship between influencing and selling. Some people see them as similar, especially when their orientation is sales. I wanted to make it clear that influence is not about driving an agenda, which is why I included the 3 guidelines for influencing.

      These are quick thoughts off the top of my head. Would love to hear more about what you’ve been thinking. Thanks for asking this though-provoking question.

  • Great post. I think this topic is one of the great undeveloped opportunities for all organizations. As I say to the middle managers I sometimes teach, ‘You can direct your staff in developing and implementing plans, but how do you influence across the organization among your peers? Plan implementation is utterly dependent on cross-functional collaboration!’

    My recommendation is to move visibly from the old hierarchical authoritarian approach to one of being authoritative. The 8 influencer points and 3 guidelines you list fit well with that mind-set.

    Of course, I also strongly suggest they start by practicing being authoritative with their staff!!

    • Hi Alan, That’s an interesting distinction between being “authoritarian” and “authoritative.” I like the term – it’s what I was describing in the 3 guidelines. Thanks also for emphasizing the point that “plan implementation is utterly dependent on cross-functional collaboration.” We just can’t get where we want to go without these skills.

  • Betsy Loughran

    Great post, Jesse. And its particularly applicable to nonprofits. I’ve “moved up” from a management position to being a board member of various nonprofits. While you might have nominal authority as a board member, what you really have is a chance to influence the organization. Thinking broadly about how to influence in a much more varied way is really useful.

  • Saraswati

    Character building is the biggest block for true leadership. When you lead by example, you examine yourself internally every time & all you say gets noticed and mostly followed. This approach opens up communication and collaboration. We theoretically know all of this but lack in our individual discipline & commitment. It’s a tough trail but I guess natural leaders don’t think so much before taking the first step.
    Great post Jesse, loved every bit of it.

    • You make an important point Saraswati. Self-reflection and self-awareness are essential in order to act consistently with character and requires discipline and commitment. It doesn’t mean you’ll be perfect. We all make mistakes, and we actually build more credibility when we admit it (to ourselves and others) and learn from it so we don’t keep repeating the same mistake.

  • Jesse, Thanks for another great post. I believe it is harder to lead (influence) without authority, but when done effectively, this may be leadership in its purest form. Leadership is definitely the influence one has, and you have very ably listed the attributes that gain influence. I particularly appreciate your inclusion of Social Intelligence and Connectedness. I believe it is the connections one makes with others that allow leadership to occur and to continue over time.

    • I love your comment, Lyn “I believe it is the connections one makes with others that allow leadership to occur and to continue over time.” You raise the issue of sustainability. In the short term, people will comply with authority-based leadership. But unless they feel a connection, either through a personal relationship or because they are inspired by a vision that resonates with their own hopes and values, compliance is not sustainable – eventually they will quit, or worse yet, “quit and stay.”

  • Shireen Fernandez

    Thanks for a great article, Jesse.
    In an ideal situation, it is always a great advantage when leadership can be executed without a need to resort to authority in order to achieve end goals and positive outcomes.
    However, this is a two way street. In order for Managers to be able to adopt this style, employees need to meet them halfway by completing their tasks, assuming responsibility, thinking outside the box and buying into the success of the company.
    On the other hand, in order for employees to be able to thrive and contribute to the company’s success, they need the space, support, tools and training.
    Often, this dynamic is rare as it calls on values of commitment, character and credidibility for every stakeholder in the process. The good news is, it is achievable.
    All the best, everyone.

    • Hi Shireen, You make some very good points. Your comments remind me that in a traditional reporting relationship, when an employee is facing a new goal or challenge and is on a learning curve, they need directive behavior from the manager. It’s more difficult to provide directive behavior when working across reporting lines or in a matrix environment. But it’s not impossible when you have built credibility and strong relationships. What might be different is how you provide direction. You can’t assume it’s in the “contract” of the relationship that you can direct them. You’d probably want to start with something like, “It might be a good idea…” or “You might want to consider…” or even ask the person if they would mind some direction. Thanks your for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  • Shireen Fernandez

    Hi Jesse,
    Thanks for that. You are absolutely right.
    The challenge here, I suppose, happens when in a tight economy and you need to manage the delivery to bring in the revenue which contributes to the retention of employees. It’s a fine balance when managing people.
    Thank you, once again and all the best with everything.
    Shireen

  • Sandeep

    Dear Jesse ,

    This is a very good post.
    As a follow up , is it possible for you to share some instances of how you possibly helped some people practically increase influence without authority?
    Your article has many good points – however , I believe nobody can work on improving all of them simultaneously. How does on prioritise?
    Any particular exercise that you know that helps in this change?

    • I agree that it’s not possible to work on all of these at the same time. In fact, it’s not realistic to expect to be strong in all of these. Priority #1 is character. Next I would work on self-awareness and social skills. I have observed that the most successful people are not necessarily the most intelligent ones, but the ones who know how to work well with others. In terms of an exercise to develop these skills. If you are looking for something for yourself, here’s a suggestion for a place to start: next time you get upset with someone, stay with your feelings, but don’t act them out. Most people either cut their feelings off or act out reactively. If you don’t act reactively, you are less likely to get yourself in trouble. (For example, never send an email while you are angry). And if you allow yourself to feel your feelings, you’ll learn more about what’s really going on for you and increase your self-awareness. If you are looking for something to help training leaders, you might want to check out Daniel Goleman. He’s done some good work. I’d also recommend training in temperament (e.g. MBTI) and appreciative inquiry. People who know how to listen are listened to.

  • fay kandaran

    Despite the many versions of influencing and models of types of power in the literature, once again you add deep thought and an original take that adds to our understanding and can guide our actions.

  • With respect, I could not disagree more. I find myself on the other side of the fence in what you have described.

    The hierarchical systems that we have helped clients build have contributed hugely to their success.

    Our experience has shown that employees crave clarity in their work. Employees want to know what is expected from them (specifically, the accountabilities to which their manager holds them) and want to know what authority they have to get their work done. It’s management work to ensure that this is in place with your employees.

    I do not believe this is a paternalistic act of an interfering parent, rather a basic management requirement to integrate and align the work of the their department or organization “in an increasingly complex environment.”

    I believe that what you’re suggesting unnecessarily increases the complexity and energy required to get work done efficiently and effectively.

    My own passion is to help create great places to work that achieve extraordinary results. I have found that hierarchies have created wonderful environments for employees to work, without fear, with openness, honesty, trust, and respect for human dignity. Further, these employees have the opportunity to maximize their creativity and their contribution to the team’s or organization’s success.

    • Hi Nick, I appreciate your thoughts and taking the time to share them here. Organization structure was not the main focus of my post so I did not go into detail around that. I am not suggesting that a matrix structure is always better than a hierarchical one, nor am I advocating anarchy. There is no best structure as they all bring inherent issues with them. I follow the principles of architecture – “form follows function” – organizational structure should support its mission, vision and values. A hierarchical structure can work quite well for certain types of organizations, especially when leaders are intentional in maintaining a “servant leader” attitude. Ultimately the issue is not structure, but how one operates within it. As Alan Kay pointed out in his comment, what is needed is to be authoritative, not authoritarian. However, I also do know that those who are stuck at the bottom of the hierarchy, with no hope of rising, would not extol its virtues. Regardless of anyone’s opinion of what is the best structure, the reality is that in most organizations today, people must often work across reporting lines to accomplish their objectives. And for that reason alone, it is a good idea to learn how to influence when you don’t have “position power.”

  • Hi Jesse,

    Hope you’re well!

    I notice that you called out vision in one of your replies, but frankly, I’m wondering why it didn’t make the main list in the post. ;)

    If a vision is compelling enough, it will attract a first follower. Once there is a first follower (an important leader in and of itself, that role), more followers are attracted. Once more followers of the vision are attracted, a strong influence is in place.

    Of course, it’s possible, as with this blog, and other published material and creative statements that carry vision, to influence without ever knowing the extent of that influence. No visible followers, yet influence.

    OK, I’m lobbying for vision to be added. :)

    Best to you…

    ~M

    • Hi Mark,
      You make a cogent argument for adding vision to the list.
      The list I provided is a list of sources of personal power and credibility – ways to get others to pay attention to your ideas, vision, solutions, etc.

      The issue is: I could articulate a wonderful vision, but you wouldn’t listen to me unless I had established credibility with you – either through my demonstrated expertise (my ability to articulate a vision that makes sense), our connectedness (my ability to communicate a vision that resonates with your values), etc.

      Also, describing a vision is only one of several ways we can attempt to influence others.

      It seems to me there’s another list to consider – the specific kinds of actions you can take — once you have established personal power and credibility. That list would include:
      – Articulating a vision and build a logical business case
      – Appealing to their values and emotions
      – Inviting them to participate, create real opportunities for involvement and impact
      – Making it easy for them to do what you are suggesting (offer assistance, remove obstacles, provide support)
      – Making an appeal on the basis of friendship

      You really pushed my thinking on this, Mark, and for that I thank you. It may be that I am unduly complicating this topic, and if you still want to lobby to add vision to my original list, I would not argue further with you.

      • Hi Jesse;

        When I made the original reply, I was thinking of inspirational leaders, who, through their thought leadership and *articulated* vision (be it in spiritual, or more mundane domains), have resonated with those whom may not even know them—thus influencing others to gain new perspectives, and from those new perspectives, make different choices.

        With your clarification, you brought additional focus and cogent reasoning to your own approach and choices here (for me). Therefore, no further argument from me!

        Thank you for your careful consideration of my suggestion! :)

        All the best,

        ~M

  • Jesse-
    Great post. I’ve been behind the past few weeks on keeping up with your blog so I’m glad I took the opportunity to catch up tonight on a few posts. This one is not only exceptional but timely for me. I recently wrote a blog post about the Paradox of influence as this very topic has been on my mind. This paradox being that we need influence to lead others but influence is really about personal development. You could read more of my own thoughts here: http://micahyost.blogspot.com/2012/01/paradox-of-influence.html

    This post so clearly articulates what influence really is. The traits that you list here are what authentic leadership looks like, as opposed to simply using positional authority. Thanks for taking time to write this one. Very helpful.

    Micah

  • Also, I find it ironic that Mark is lobbying for Jesse Lyn Stoner, the poster child for vision, to add vision to the list. I never thought anyone would have to try to get Jesse to actually add vision to something… :)

    Micah

    • Indeed, Micah. But I also know that when you’re a carpenter, you tend to think everything is fixed with a hammer and nail. I don’t want to assume vision is the answer to everything. And I do appreciate that when I omit vision, others bring it up.

  • Christopher Secoy

    EXCELLENT Post!!! The one thing that is missing is Emotional Intelligence. For leaders I think this is very important, as they need to be able to check their egos and not react to situations adversely. Through my career I have only worked with one person who I would consider to be a great leader, most people are simply managers, who tend to play it safe, or they are ill equipped to be leaders. Look forward to reading your additional posts.

    • Hi Christopher, I agree that emotional intelligence is important. In fact it is so important that I decided to break it up into three categories to be more descriptive – character (EI for self-awareness), connectedness (EI for one-on-one relationships) and social intelligence (EI for groups and larger context). I agree with you that people get a lot of credibility and are better able to influence when they “check their ego” and don’t respond reactively. If I rewrite this, I will add that to character. Thanks for emphasizing this important point.

  • Andrew Hudson

    Very interesting post – I’ll read them sooner in future!
    I was thinking along the same lines as Mark Petruzzi, about vision, and I still see some force in it, though I agree with your reply. For me, “Sense of purpose” is really important in giving authority, ie persuading me to follow someone. A manager could be good at eg the inter-personal skills but won’t have followers over the long term if they don’t see a purpose in what he/she is doing.
    On Nick Forrest’s point, there will be occasions – crisis or turnround – where hierarchical authority is essential, but I agree with your final point that these days, most people have to work across reporting lines and indeed across organisations to achieve their goals.

    • Thank you, Andrew. I really appreciate your comments. One of the goals of my posts is to stimulate people’s thinking, not for them to necessarily agree with me. And when people share their own thoughts, it further stimulates my own thinking on the topic. Leadership and relationships are complex and don’t have simple cookbook solutions. When we can see many sides of an argument, we are in a better position to make the choices that will work best in a given situation. Your comments further illuminate some of the important issues to consider.

  • Great list. Thank you. I beleive that to be able to lead without authority you need to gain the trust of your followers. I think your 8 ways of influencing without authority build trust. If you haven’t got the trust of your followers then you have to fall back on authority.

  • Gary S. Moore

    Great post once again. In December last year our company laid off 25% of staff around the globe, many people like me found themselves without a team or on a new one. In either case what we once knew no longer exist and being able to influence without authority is now the order of the day. The status quo may not exist tomorrow and you’re so right, we all need to build muscle before we have a need to use it. Thanks for the insightful article that I will share with colleagues. ~ Gary

    • Thanks so much for sharing your own experience Gary. It grounds it in reality. It’s especially difficult to make this kind of transition when it is paired with the trauma of a severe downsizing. Learning to influence without authority is an important skill for both the best of times and the worst of times.

  • I have conducted many workshops on this very topic Jesse, and you have nailed it! As the saying goes, Authority can lead people for the short term. Influence can lead people for the long term. If a company has 200 managers nationwide, they will be ranked based on whatever parameters they use. What you will always find is that certain managers will nearly always rank in the top 10 or 20 while certain managers will consistently rank in the bottom 10 or 20 – at least until they are let go. Since all 200 managers have authority and all have mostly the same number of direct reports and have all received the same corporate leadership training, what accounts for the difference in ranking? It points to the fact that the consistent leaders have identified where they can be influential in a given situation and take the time and energy to utilize it.

    • Great point that authority-based leadership is not sustainable over the long-term. And your point is well-taken that even in the short-term, it does not have the same effect on people. Relying on authority might produce results, but you do not get respect and loyalty without mastering the qualities of influence. Thanks for sharing your insights and adding to the conversation, Bill.

  • I just found this post. It is exactly what I need. I’ve been feeling that my work with the kids was not making a difference, and I want to find ways to share my convictions with the teacher with whom I work. I have no ‘authority’, but I do have good social intelligence and I create relationships with people. So I am going to use this to draw a path to my own actions for change! Thanks!

  • Great post thanks!

    Connecting social, intellectual and emotional intelligence together on a working place seems hard, but really worth it. I like your way to present those ideas!

    Managers can use this way a lot to get things done by people who work as a team because they love it, and enjoy the pleasure of collaboration!

    Sometimes I work for the manager, an ideal, or just because I have a great connection with someone. Not because I’ve been told too.

    I also appreciated your example child-adult relationship. How many times did I feel like an oppressed child at work? I do not know ;) But surely I rather enjoy being encouraged and inspired to action by someone who respects me, encourages my efforts and makes me feel good.

    You made me feel good! Thanks a lot :)

    David

  • Sophie

    Great post!

    I was wondering if you have any tips on exercises that can be conducted by a team to practice these learnings? I’m managing a team of true warriors trying to get a big (and quite conservative) company to think and act responsibly but the last thing we have to influence them is authority… (just our strong calling that it is possible!)

    Any tips for an exercise at a team offsite or similar would be most appreciated!

    Thanks

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Hi Sophie,
      A hat tip to your warrior team for taking on such an important endeavor. I recommend that each team member do a self-assessment for each of the 8 ways of influencing and write down what their specific strengths are in that area. Then compile all of the assessments to create a team profile. Where is your team most influential? What strengths can you tap from individual team members? Put together a strategy for influence based on this. And if there are important areas where you do not have influence, look for “referent influence” – people you have connections with who do have the influence that is missing on your team, and consider how to enlist their support.
      Of course all this is dependent on the strength and clarity of your mission. This work must be done first – can you articulate a compelling logic for what you want to accomplish?
      The other thing you may want to use as a resource is “The Change Checklist: The 7 Must-Haves to Ensure Your Change Effort is successful. I offer this as a free gift to people who sign up to receive notification of my blog: http://seapointcenter.com
      Good luck with your efforts! My best, Jesse

  • Sudhir Rao

    Jesse, That was an excellent post. It had all the necessary ingredients to “Influence without Authority”. I have been working in the collaboration space and that intersects quite a lot with this.

    I thought I would add my 2 cents to it.

    1. From an organization standpoint, they can encourage this capability by adding it to the success criteria for a person’s career (the ability to influence others across the organization by giving or getting help)

    2. On the personal front, I believe someone who wants to “influence without authority” must also be able to show empathy. This attribute helps them think of other people. This helps the person garner “Trust”, something that is key in this space.

    As you rightly mentioned towards the end of the post, being seen as someone who is not attached to the situation at hand is key. One of my colleagues beautifully called it “Lose Control to Gain Control”.

    I enjoyed reading the post.

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Thanks for your 2 cents, Sudhir!
      1) – for raising this issue of organizational support for this capability. Matrix organizations in particular need to include this as part of their their success criteria because a matrix environment requires people able to work effectively across reporting lines. But even traditionally structured organizations would do well to support the development of this capability because work goes smoother in any environment.
      2) I- for calling out the importance of empathy. It was implied in what I call “social intelligence” but not clearly specified.

      “Lose Control to Gain Control” is perfect! Thanks for sharing it, and for taking the time to deepen the conversation.

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