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How to Build Influence Without Authority: 6 Effective Ways

By June 30, 2023December 15th, 2023No Comments
Influence without authority

In today’s organizations, traditional hierarchical authority is not as, well, authoritative as it used to be.

People used to have a designated place in the organizational hierarchy and this determined their level of influence. VPs, FVPs, MVPs, RVPs, SVPs, EVPs – basically, VPs all the way down.

But today, things are a lot more fluid.

That authority figure who used to demand from the top, “Stay in your job and do your job!” has almost vanished. At the same time, the move to flatter corporate structures has opened up incredible opportunities to nurture successful working relationships with people of all levels.

And here’s the exciting part – the health of those relationships directly impacts the amount of influence you hold, whether that’s coaching employees or maintaining a good rapport with your boss.

When you commit to intentionally thinking about and nurturing how you work with people rather than just focusing on doing the work, you create the space to wield influence softly and meaningfully.

Influencing Without Authority: When and Why

Influence has many flavors, and takes many different forms.

Whether it’s your boss, your team, your colleagues, or the Uber Eats guy delivering your smoothies, understanding who to influence to get the right work done is really important.

Take your boss as an example. Your boss wields significant influence over most aspects of your workplace, so knowing how to effectively influence them can profoundly impact your work experience, success, and happiness.

Navigating the complexities of cross-team collaboration is equally important.

Think about the tension that exists between different departments trying to get work done.

Sales blame marketing for inadequate support, while marketing feels sales aren’t effectively communicating their value. Understanding these dynamics reminds us that people are the driving force behind organizational outcomes.

So by learning how to influence people, you gain the ability to leverage much bigger entities, such as groups, leaders, and departments.

You become the agent of change in your working relationships and open up boundless opportunities to have more impact.

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6 Ways of Fostering Change Without Exerting Power

How you show up daily is the basis of how you influence people, and these working relationships shouldn’t be left to chance.

Instead of leaving it up to the capricious winds of chance, take fate into your own hands and start intentionally growing your influence and authority. Here are a few ways to do that:

1. Connect With Those Who Matter

Imagine having strong connections with your boss, your team, your collaborators, your peers, your vendors, and your customers.

That’s precisely what I tackle in my latest book, How to Work With (Almost) Anyone. I explore these connections through the concept of the Keystone Conversation – shifting the focus from the tasks at hand to discussing how to work together more effectively.

Instead of simply getting stuck into a project, I suggest figuring out how to work together first.

I ask questions like: “How should we work? What does a good working relationship look like for you? How will we find the sweet spot for both of us?”

This simple yet powerful conversation becomes the bedrock of influence.

It signals that you care and that you actively nurture, repair, and look after your working relationships – and that’s everything. Because work happens through people, and building those relationships is how you’ll grow your influence and facilitate great work.

2. Know What the Real Challenges Are

I often see people fall into the trap of assuming that hard work equals value.

But, if you’re working hard on stuff that doesn’t matter much, that’s not actually that helpful to your organization. In fact, it’s less than helpful because you’ve used up time, money and energy by working on the wrong things.

To grow your influence, you need to get good at identifying what the real challenges are and build a reputation for yourself as the person who looks beyond the busy work to find the work that truly matters.

It’s all about lifting your eyes to the horizon and cultivating the rare, elusive, and prized quality of strategic thinking.

Aim to be known as the person who helps articulate critical issues, not the person who provides hasty answers to solve the wrong problems.

3. Be Curious

Another powerful way to increase your influence is through curiosity.

Many people jump at the chance to offer opinions, ideas, suggestions and advice. It’s something I tackle in-depth in my book, Tame Your Advice Monster.

But instead of adding your opinions to the ocean of noise, you can differentiate yourself by asking good questions.

In meetings, people often think they need to speak the loudest and the most to increase influence. But that’s not true – it’s the quality of what you say, not the quantity, that matters.

One or two powerful questions can demonstrate your value by giving people the opportunity to learn and grow.

Of course, the questions you ask will depend on the context. Say there’s a conversation happening where your team’s being given more work than you can all handle. You could say: “What do we need to say no to so that we can say yes to this?”

Similarly, if a meeting veers off course, you can steer it back in the right direction by asking, “What’s the real challenge we’re trying to solve here?” and refocusing everyone’s attention on the core issue.

4. Embrace Smart Generosity

Adam Grant’s Give and Take is a must-read for anyone looking to understand how to show up in the world and be generous. In the book, Grant explores three dynamics: giving, taking, and matching.

You can figure out the behaviors and styles of the givers and takers – they give and they take respectively. The matchers are more interesting – they have an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” way of being – they like to preserve an equal balance of giving and taking.

Grant then explored which of these three styles was most and least successful, researching across different ages and industries.

You’re probably imagining the takers – self-serving, greedy, putting their own interests ahead of others – drawing the short end of the stick.

The least successful style turned out to be the givers. Their behavior was, in effect, self-sacrificing. They gave too much. They were too caring, too trusting, too naive.

So what was the most successful style?

Here’s the twist – it was again the givers. That’s right, givers are at the bottom and the top of the success ladder. Because there’s an intelligent way to be a giver without giving away too much of yourself.

Smart givers understand what can be given away and what can’t. They couple an open heart with considered boundaries, putting aside smaller wins to play bigger games.

When they say yes, they say “hell, yes!” They really commit. But they’re also very good at saying no, so they can commit to the work that matters most.

This kind of strategic generosity is deeply entwined with influence. It’s all about knowing what to say yes to and what to say no to, so you can focus on the stuff that matters.

5. Be a Good Storyteller

With influence, one of the things you’re trying to do is bring people along with you. To do that, you have to understand what makes people want to journey with you. And that’s exactly what Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick, covers.

In the book, the authors share a powerful metaphor that exemplifies how our brains respond to change:

“Imagine an elephant on a path accompanied by a rider. The rider represents the rational case for change and doing things differently. The elephant, on the other hand, represents the emotional case for change. And the path embodies the structural elements that shape our environment.”

Now, when people are trying to convince others to do something, most embody the rider – they focus on facts, data, and science.

But that doesn’t really work. Even though people intellectually understand your point, they don’t feel inspired to make a difference. Their inner elephant is unmoved.

Being a good storyteller is all about motivating the elephant and tapping into the emotional side of change. You show the other person how they can be a hero in the story, and that propels them to come on a journey with you.

To up your influence, you’ll need to learn how to speak to people’s emotional brains. But there’s also the path to consider – putting the right structural elements in place to guide the brain towards the right choice.

After all, if there’s a path in front of the elephant, it will follow it,

6. Understand Where the Power Nodes Are

Believe it or not, your organizational chart is lying to you.

Sure, it gives you a structural representation of your company – who holds what title and who reports to them in a pyramid format.

But here’s the thing, there’s a hidden org chart, a shadow version that shows how power flows through the organization – and it doesn’t look how you’d expect.

Here’s an anecdote to contextualize things. Recently, someone who works at a university told me the person with the most influence isn’t actually the dean – it’s the executive assistant to the dean.

Why? Because they control access to him. If you connect with them and gain access, you can get things done. They’re the person you need to build a relationship with.

Usually, though, it’s more than one person that we need to persuade. The shadow organizational chart tends to comprise power nodes; clusters of influence.

For example, let’s say you’ve got a great PR idea, and you want to get buy-in from the head of marketing. Actually, you’re better off spending your time and energy trying to win over the six-strong marketing team because they’re the group the head of marketing is influenced by.

So, you need to connect with those six individuals who wield influence over the person you want to sway. By influencing that hub, you gain access to the people you want to impact.

Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Cultivating Influence

If you’re daunted about putting yourself out there and building your influence, I get it.

It’s natural to worry about how you could be perceived by the people around you – especially when you’re exiting your comfort zone. But this is also part of the challenge for you as an ambitious individual.

You want those you interact with – your team, boss, customers, and suppliers – to move forward rather than retreat.

You want people to stay engaged and feel that working with you is a place of reward, not risk. And you also realize that YOU want to feel like you’re not under threat, too, so that you can stay at your smartest rather than in flight or fight mode.

So how do you influence others’ brains and your own so that situations are read as rewards, not risks? It comes down to the TERA quotient, a concept I explore in The Coaching Habit.

When you focus on TERA, you are thinking about how you can influence the environment that drives engagement. Let me break that down:

  • T stands for tribe. The brain asks, “Are you on my side or against me?” If the brain perceives you as an ally, the TERA quotient rises. But if it sees you as opposition, the TERA quotient diminishes.
  • E stands for expectation. The brain wonders, “Do I know what the future holds?” When the future feels clear and predictable, the situation feels safe. Conversely, when uncertainty looms, the brain senses danger.
  • R stands for rank. This is a relative measure, not solely determined by formal titles but rather by the power dynamics at play at a given moment. The brain asks, “Are you more or less important than I am?” If the brain senses a diminishment in its status, the situation feels less secure.
  • A stands for autonomy. This aspect has been brilliantly explored by Dan Pink in his book Drive. The brain ponders, “Do I have a say in this matter?” The degree of autonomy one perceives in a situation shapes the sense of reward and engagement. Having a sense of choice makes the environment feel safer, whereas a lack of perceived autonomy diminishes safety.

Your job is to increase the TERA Quotient whenever you can. Once you do, you help you grow your influence while building trust in the workplace.

Be the Person Who Makes Your Working Relationships Better

Ultimately, building influence in the workplace is all about the quality of your working relationships. Therefore, the real question is: How to build relationships at work?

Focus on building genuine relationships that are safe, vital, and repairable – and your influence will soar.

And if you’d like to delve deeper into this topic, grab a copy of my new book, How to Work With (Almost) Anyone.

Michael Bungay Stanier

Michael Bungay Stanier

I'm the author of five books that have collectively sold more than a million copies. I'm the founder of Box of Crayons, a learning and development company that helps organizations move from advice-driven to curiosity-led. I'm the host of the *2 Pages with MBS* podcast.