How to Lead with Influence Instead of Authority

Posted 09.22.2020

One of the things you read most often about the effects of the pandemic is that it has accelerated trends that were already in play by about 10 years. In certain aspects of work and life, it suddenly seems like 2030 instead of 2020. Working from home and in other distributed locations away from the office is probably the most prominent example. That trend was predicted for years and, now, suddenly, it’s a reality that will likely permanently alter the way work gets done in organizations.

Building on the new reality of distributed work, I think we’ll see an acceleration in the move towards agile, flexible work teams that cut across functions. That means that leaders who rely on exercising influence in a matrix will be more effective than those that rely on exercising authority in a hierarchy.

Influence vs. authority is not a new distinction by any means; I just think it’s going to be more important going forward. I’ve written about the difference a few times over the years including in this post on how to increase your influence and this one on how to enroll people in your ideas rather than selling them. In prepping this post, I went back and took a look at both of those. Drawing on some of the suggestions I made in those posts, here, with the new realities we’re all experiencing in mind, is an updated list of tips on how to lead with influence instead of authority.

First, practice the three L’s:

Learn:  To be influential, you have to learn how others answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”  Another way to frame that question is “Why should I care?”  Make it your mission to learn how your colleagues answer those questions for themselves and then, as much as possible, shape your initiatives and requests to address the answers.

Listen:  One of the best ways to learn what others care most about is to ask them open ended questions like “What would make this year a huge success for you?” or “What’s supporting and what’s getting in the way of your goals?”  Yet another is “What could we do together that would make a difference?”  Ask the questions and listen to the answers.  You’ll start to see opportunities to influence how things turn out.

Like:  It’s all well and good to say it’s better to be respected than liked but the fact is people are more inclined to cooperate with people they like.  Again, it’s the difference between authority and influence.  Stronger relationships lead to stronger and more lasting results. Working in a distributed, more virtual environment means we all need to move beyond the old relationship building standbys of meals, coffees and other in-person downtime events. Leave time in your online life to check in with and get to know your colleagues better on a personal basis.

Then, work on incorporating these three traits into your influential leadership style:

Share What You Know – Don’t play your cards close to your vest. Share what you know and put it out there. You’ll either influence your colleagues’ thinking or you’ll learn what their concerns are (or both).

Involve Others Early – Influencing without authority requires trust. You build trust by bringing people in early. I once had a boss who insisted that my peers and I not spring ideas on her that had been “grown in a dark closet like mushrooms.” What she was looking for was the opportunity to influence the big initiatives before they became fully baked. If she wasn’t involved or at least aware early on, she didn’t buy what we were selling. Involvement is a key component of influence. That’s not just true for influencing your boss or managing up; it’s also true for your peers and team members.

Co-Create a Shared Vision – Co-create a shared vision of the future that connects with people’s sense of purpose. Work with your colleagues to sketch out a picture of what the future could look like when you implement your co-created solution.

All of the above requires some mental bandwidth and whitespace to implement. Leading through authority is often about the cram down. Leading with influence is about creating the space to truly collaborate. The most influential leaders understand that it’s worth it to delete a few things from their to-do list to create space for themselves and their colleagues to engage in the more important work.

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