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Building influence without authority: Be the change you want to see

November 7, 2022 - 13 min read

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Why cultivate influence without authority

The traits of an unofficial leader

How to influence without authority

Turning influence into actual authority

The risks of managing without authority

Be the change you want to see

Do you think your organization could do things differently? Are your colleagues struggling with recurring problems, and you want to help them? Building influence among your peers can help you create the change you want to see in your workplace.

In addition to advancing your career goals, expanding your influence at a company can help you move the needle on important workplace issues. For example, becoming a prominent voice on workplace health and safety can lead to better working conditions for you and your colleagues. 

But to be successful, you’ll have to be more than a charismatic leader; you’ll also have to navigate the complex power dynamics of your workplace. Some managers may even feel threatened by your popularity and choose to work against you rather than commend your leadership.

In a healthy work environment, though, your influence is a tool for good. Building influence without authority will push your career to the next level and make you an agent for change in your company.

Why cultivate influence without authority

If you’re used to keeping to yourself, you might wonder why you should bother influencing others. You’re not a manager, after all — why is it your responsibility?

To a certain degree, you’re right. As a regular employee, your job description probably doesn’t mention “inspiring the troops,”  “boosting morale,” or “improving company process.”  

But the success of your job probably depends on the success of others. Whether you’re a software engineer at a startup or a product manager at Amazon, you’ll have to interact with key stakeholders. And if they view you as a positive and helpful member of your team, they’re more likely to step up when you need them.

Positively influencing others is about more than making your life easier; it can also be a rewarding experience in itself. Consider these benefits:

  • Become a better version of yourself. You can’t inspire others without amplifying your best personality traits. Being a leader is about being a better human so you can inspire others to do the same. 

  • Build trust. To get people’s buy-in, they’ll have to trust your opinion — and you’re going to have to earn it. This takes time, vulnerability, and understanding of their point of view. But, if you can put your ego to one side, you’ll learn to depend on each other.

  • Cultivate a sense of belonging. As you learn to trust your team and vice versa, you’ll feel a greater sense of kinship. It’s nice to know they have your back and you have theirs.

  • Sharpen your leadership skills. Practice makes perfect. Becoming a respected team member lets you “try out” being a manager. Then, when you’re in a position of formal authority,  you’ll feel better prepared to help your team succeed.

All of these benefits help build a healthier and more positive work environment. If you can inspire and connect with others, you will not only build influence for yourself — you’ll improve the lives of your team.

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The traits of an unofficial leader

It’s important to distinguish between influencing others and manipulating them. 

To manipulate is to lie and deceive someone for your own self-interest. Here, you’re misleading a person to achieve an outcome that benefits only (or mostly) you. For example, earning someone’s support by promising someone they’ll receive a raise once you become manager but not following through is manipulative.

To influence people, on the other hand, is to bring them together and lead them toward a common goal. Usually, this means appealing to their best interests rather than your own. In exchange for their trust, you may promise to speak for them in meetings or defend their performance to your project manager. Either way, you persuade them to see things from your side.

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Leading without authority requires the following characteristics:

  • Confidence. For others to trust you, you must first trust yourself. Projecting confidence will encourage others to support your decision-making. If you’re running an event and panicking at every turn, your volunteers will feel uneasy about supporting your choices.

  • Expertise. Your confidence has to be well-founded. If you have a reputation as a thoughtful, nuanced, and critical thinker, people will hear you out when you propose a new idea.

  • Emotional intelligence. Leadership requires meeting people where they are. If you’re asking for their support, you have to show that you have their best interests at heart. This means listening to their needs, understanding their point of view, and proposing solutions to problems that matter to them.

In some ways, cultivating influence is like being a politician. You have to build relationships and show people you’re worth their trust. Then, instead of supporting you through votes (unless your organization has some democratic mechanisms for hiring people), they can help you in other ways. They may support your ideas, talk you up to management, or defer to you for decision-making.

How to influence without authority

Leading without direct authority requires tact. You’ll have to watch out for intra-office politics and let your clout grow organically.

Here are some ways to influence without authority:

1. Build relationships with the right people. Put your interpersonal skills to use. Befriend team members who themselves have influence in your organization. Ask them to grab a coffee in person or set up a video chat if you’re working remotely. As you learn each other’s goals, you might find creative ways to help each other.

2. Adapt to other people’s work styles. Everyone works differently. Some like to brainstorm for a long time before committing to a podcast idea; others like to be more decisive. They’ll respect you as an emerging leader if you let them play to their strengths.

3. Be a team player. To earn people’s trust and respect, show them you’re on their side. Deliver your promises, suggest great ideas, and know when to let other people shine. 

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4. Help when you can. Leadership is about helping others. Stay up late with your colleagues, take on extra work, or help them out of a bind. This shows you have their best interests at heart, and you could do even more for them with more power

5. Simplify things for people. The folks you’re trying to influence are probably busy; they don’t have time to examine the nuances of your project proposal. Use your communication skills to succinctly make your pitch.

6. Articulate your value. Don’t be afraid to mention your accomplishments in conversation. You don’t have to brag, but casually acknowledging an award you received over the weekend will help others see you as a capable person. Self-promotion is a valuable skill.

7. Spread positivity. People like to feel good. If you regularly give kudos, look at the bright side, and approach every situation with a growth mindset, people will gravitate to your good attitude. 

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Turning influence into actual authority

By learning how to influence others, you can have authority without power. But eventually, this influence can help you earn a real position of authority within your organization.

Here are some examples of how leading without authority can turn into institutional power:

  • Example 1: A Team Lead in your product design department recently resigned. You ask to be considered for the role, which would put you in charge of the people you currently interact with every day. As your department manager weighs her decision, your name keeps coming up in conversations unprompted. Everyone she talks to, from your teammates to other Team Leads, has nothing but good things to say about you. This puts the manager’s mind at ease, and she then agrees to promote you.

  • Example 2: Your organization refuses to spend on ergonomic office equipment like chairs and keyboards. Some of your team members are experiencing pain as a result. You’re not a manager, so you don’t have the power to approve budgets for your department. But when a seat opens on the company’s health and safety committee, your team quickly elects you as their representative. Here you can help craft company-wide policies requiring minimum ergonomic standards for equipment.

In these two examples, your organic influence helped you land more powerful positions in your organization. Without the admiration and support of colleagues across departments, your manager in Example 1 may not have chosen to promote you. In Example 2, your colleagues quite literally elected you into a position of power — something that wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t have their trust and support.

The risks of managing without authority

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Cultivating influence in your organization can be risky. You’ll navigate a complex web of power dynamics and office politics every day. Even if you have good intentions, managers may view your popularity among colleagues as a threat to their own power.

Some of your colleagues may also view your relationship-building as disingenuous and “sucking up,” which could hurt your credibility.

It’s impossible to make everyone happy, so choose your battles wisely. Your boss may not mind some friendly push-back on inconsequential decisions. But if you’re constantly a thorn in their side, they may view you as a nuisance and start pushing you out.

You also want to avoid implying you know better than your colleagues. You’re all professionals, after all. Everyone is there because they’re smart and capable people. If you disrespect their agency, they might disrespect you back.

Be the change you want to see

At the end of the day, building influence without authority can help you make positive organizational changes. It requires you to listen to others, adapts to their needs, and lend them a hand. In exchange, they’ll give you their trust and support your moves up the corporate ladder.

And through this process, you may surprise yourself. It’s your chance to grow into a better person and use your abilities meaningfully. And that’s something you can feel good about.

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Published November 7, 2022

Elizabeth Perry

Content Marketing Manager, ACC

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