Leadership Values in Action: Influence without Authority
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Leadership Values in Action: Influence without Authority

While the phrase isn’t new, you’re likely seeing “influence without authority” in the professional world more frequently these days. It’s in the performance assessment criteria. It’s in job descriptions for all manager levels. Tools and classes focus on its practice. Influencing without authority is among the capabilities now considered essential for effective collaboration and leadership. As many organizations and companies encourage less hierarchical work structures and require more cross-team workflows to meet their goals, you’re likely to hear it even more.

What Does Influence without Authority Mean?

To influence without authority means that you can align colleagues with ideas or plans so that they willingly support the effort, rather than doing so because you’re their supervisor or boss wielding power. Using authority means that there are real or perceived consequences for not participating in or supporting your plan. These may include loss of opportunity for advancement or financial incentives, negative feedback in formal reviews, or other levers pulled by someone in a position of authority over a colleague.

How do you Influence without Authority?

Put simply, we influence without authority when we recognize that we all have the ability to contribute to achieving organizational goals and that when we share perspectives, we can make a greater impact. There’s no bringing down the hammer or “my way or the highway” attitudes when influencing without authority. And that’s a good thing.

Recently, I coached a leader with a reputation for using their position to force their agenda or hamper the efforts of others. This leader was doing this by pulling rank, and leveraging the power of their position. At the beginning of my engagement as their executive coach, I sat in on a meeting with this leader and one of their direct reports. The employee was asked a question and immediately looked to the leader for direction regarding how to answer. The leader then answered instead of the employee, speaking on their behalf. I noted this with great concern. Not allowing team members to share their own thoughts and perspectives, let alone talk in a meeting, creates a culture of low engagement and contributes to a lack of trust. Even worse, it generates a culture of fear. If your boss doesn’t trust you to answer a question in a meeting regarding your project, how would that make you feel? Most likely, this would lead to much second-guessing, slower decision-making with poor quality, and less-than-desirable organizational results. As I delved deeper into the leader’s style and approach, I found exactly that. The department had multiple projects stalled due to a lack of progress or discarded because their relevance had passed while the leader withheld support for others to carry them forward.

In contrast, those who influence without authority can successfully achieve results at any level of an organization, cultivating support for a new process or approach without being bound by traditional reporting structures. I continue to share and champion this concept in my coaching and culture work with numerous companies and organizations: When the best ideas win, the entire team wins.

The approach to influencing without authority stems from a goal of mutual understanding and accomplishing something together that benefits all parties, not just one.

Colleague Interactions that support Influencing without Authority include: 

  • Investigating and gaining an understanding of what someone is trying to accomplish and sharing ideas that intersect
  • Gathering useful information from a variety of trusted, reliable sources that support an idea or position and sharing it to persuade others
  • Contributing thoughts and perspectives without dominating a dialogue; being loudest doesn’t equal being right
  • Inviting opposing opinions and thoughts to test strategies and ideas and apply feedback to move toward the best solution
  • Motivating through knowledge and understanding of what someone cares about

This year I had the pleasure of working with a coaching client who is an individual contributor at a technology company. Their major responsibility is to keep projects moving on time and on budget. They have no authority over their stakeholders but must gain their agreement to get sign-off for each project to progress. The coaching client had run into a major roadblock and was in danger of missing critical milestones if they could not get the agreement of a particular stakeholder. I used my knowledge of the working environment to shed some light on the possible reasons why this leader was unable to sign off on the project. There had been major changes in the business recently, including a layoff. Everyone was looking to justify their jobs and get noticed for positive reasons. This leader was afraid to greenlight the project unless and until they were 100% sure of its success. We all know that 100% certainty is an unrealistic and unattainable goal. So, my client and I began to think of smaller milestones on the path to success that they could realistically agree to meet. We talked about how to discuss the key stakeholder’s concerns, address them, and provide some confidence in supporting the project’s advancement. This approach succeeded. Within two weeks my coaching client had obtained signoff with the stakeholder to get the project moving and approved. By addressing the leader’s concerns, gaining an understanding of their objections, and preparing a step-by-step guide to what the leader could expect to happen at each phase of the project, my client moved from skepticism to support. In plain terms, the approach was a “DO” when it comes to influencing without authority. Now, let’s talk “DON’TS.”

Colleague interactions that do not demonstrate Influencing without Authority: 

  • Pushing others to provide input and perspective before sharing yours
  • Not following through on requests or projects in a timely manner, or at all
  • Not informing/updating partners and affected colleagues when situations arise or timelines shift
  • Not “reading” others well to understand their interests, motivations, and style

Picture a meeting with a leader who is unable to hear any sound other than their own voice. Suggestions are not acknowledged, and recommendations are ignored. The team is kept silent and with no opportunity to engage. I was a regular attendee at such meetings at one point in my career. At staff meetings, a particular leader talked constantly. Sometimes these meetings would last for three or more hours. The leader would push their ideas without input from the team and give directives, a true one-way monologue. Outside of meetings, the leader did not update the team when important changes were made that had an impact on our work or on how we did it. Frequently, we would leave the office stressed, loaded down with more work, less clarity, and no time to accomplish important tasks before we were hit with another.

This leader would wonder why they encountered roadblocks and setbacks in achieving their goals, and why their retention rate with team members was so low. Due to their quick temper, no one addressed their concerns with the leader before exiting their role. Knowing what a negative experience this kind of leadership created for my colleagues and myself, I am always committed to helping leaders develop the important skill of influencing without authority.

How to develop Influence without Authority Capabilities

Whether you are considered a “decision maker” or not, the ability to influence others without use of traditional authority is a skill that you will find useful in numerous professional situations. The issue you want to address may be considered low stakes, or it could be something you believe is essential for your entire company to be high performing and profitable. Your ideas won’t go anywhere unless you build support for them with those who can help you succeed.

Influencing without authority won’t require a wholesale change in how you communicate and interact with others. But it will require you to be prepared to both speak with knowledge and listen with a goal to understand. Here are some recommendations for building your “influence with authority” muscles:

  • Speak confidently but with humility.
    You can present yourself as extremely knowledgeable about the topic you are sharing (you’ll have done your homework with reputable sources) but respect your colleagues and their unique perspectives and insights. Read the room and adjust as necessary.
  • Share your expertise.
    Why should colleagues listen to you about this issue? Use your experience to inform and influence. Position yourself not just as an authority, but also as a resource. Remember that your goal is a give-and-take conversation, not a monologue.
  • Cultivate relationships, not just in times of need.
    Relationships are powerful tools for influencing others and garnering support. Establishing goodwill, building trust, and understanding colleagues’ personal and professional motivations helps you invest in others’ success. And in turn, they will invest in yours. People will be more inclined to listen to you and help you reach your goals if they view you as a person, not just a coworker. They should also believe that you would grant them the same support that you are requesting.
  • Demonstrate leadership qualities.
    You don’t need to have the letter “C” or manager in your job title to exhibit leadership qualities. Make good eye contact and devote your attention to someone when they are talking. Show confidence in what you’re saying. Seek to connect with others frequently, not just when you need something. Identify if people are responding negatively or positively to your style and adjust appropriately.
  • Appeal to others’ self-interests and values.
    Find out what your colleagues’ priorities are, and then align your approach to help meet their goals, while achieving yours. Make them feel essential to your efforts and show how the organizational values they feel are important align with your goals.
  • Create two-way dialogue.
    Ask questions. Listen to the answers, actively. Dominating conversation signals to others that their opinions don’t count and that you’re only looking for affirmation. Give colleagues a chance to be heard and to feel respected for their opinions in collaborative interactions. They will give you the same courtesy and be open to hearing your ideas.

All of this takes dedication and practice. But it can be done, and the results support continued commitment to the approach. A few years ago, I coached a leader with a reputation for being self-centered, talking over others, and not listening. After his 360º assessment, I delivered feedback that enabled him to see how his style not only affected others but also hampered his ability to ascend as a leader and support company goals. Acknowledging this was an improvement area, we began to build his capabilities in collaborative leadership. He started to demonstrate to colleagues and direct reports that he was listening by reflecting back what he heard them say. He took the ideas of others to improve other approaches. Lastly, when he gave his ideas, he waited until others spoke first. Then he layered on his comments without discounting the views of others. He discovered that these changes enabled this group to become far more successful in meeting their organizational goals than he could accomplish with his original “my way is the only way” attitude. Innovation within his group began to bloom, as team members recognized his openness to ideas and opinions. Collaborative interactions encouraged dialogue that led to actionable next steps. While changing ingrained behaviors requires effort, leaders who adopt these practices find that they are now working smarter rather than harder.

By listening to others, adapting to their needs, and helping them at the same time you are seeking help, you can improve collaboration and create positive change within your organization. And while doing all that, influencing without authority makes you a stronger leader in your current role, as well as your next one.