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Influencing Without Authority

How often have you needed the support of others to succeed when you had absolutely no formal authority? The “because I said so” option was unavailable. But even more troubling was the fact that the “I ain't gotta do it — I'm outta here” option was clearly available to the other party. This unfortunate balance of forces did not diminish the need for you to get the other party to willingly do something according to your needs. The purpose of this article is to offer a few concepts and skills to help you exercise influence without authority.

First, let's briefly refresh your memory on the four types of power available in the workplace. Positional power comes from your position (title) in the formal hierarchy of your company. If you are a VP, you have more positional power than a first-line supervisor, and rightly so. The perks, authority and prestige of positional power are highly valued and rigorously pursued in corporate America.

There's good news and bad news about positional power. The good news is that a structure of positional power and authority is absolutely necessary to bring order and discipline to organizations. Often, one earns respect when men and women accomplish jobs of great responsibility. The bad news is that it is easy to abuse positional power. Army Colonel George Armstrong Custer had more positional power than any of his soldiers when they met Chief Sitting Bull at the Little Bighorn River in 1876. All of his staff officers strongly advised him against attacking the Indians, but he was the boss, the colonel, and he failed to listen. As a result of that abuse of positional power, Indians massacred his entire unit — resulting in Colonel Custer wearing an “arrow shirt.”

Positional power used to work reasonably well, but today, every time we lean heavily on the “because I said so” option, there is always unwanted collateral damage to the relationship with your colleagues. You should not minimize or understate positional power. It only guarantees the job will get done to the absolutely lowest standard.

Coercive power is the power to punish or to dole out negative consequences. Yes, that's what we call threat and intimidation, and it's not all bad. The national defense strategy of deterrence with the Russians during the Cold War was primarily the application of coercive power. We told the communist leaders, “If you attack the U.S. or our allies, we have the capacity and resolve to destroy your country.” Our awesome coercive power deterred them. But, alas, this article assumes you have no positional or coercive power, so let's explore your real options.

Expert power is the power behind special knowledge or skills one possesses. The Ph.D.s of the world earn that prestigious moniker by making a contribution to mankind's body of knowledge in a particular field. Being a Ph.D. in Influencing Without Authority requires a thorough knowledge and application of several key “people skills.”

Finally, personal power exists in the eye of the beholder. You have personal power if, and only if, the other party perceives that you do. When people perceive you as a person of character, integrity, honesty, selfless passion for the company and as someone who can be trusted at all times, under all circumstances — then you will have personal power.

Now, the best news yet. The job description limits positional and coercive power. These two types of power underwrite a behavioral rental agreement that expires every day at quitting time. Bottom line — the law limits these two “blunt instruments.” However, if you operate from a base of expert and personal power, then capability to influence without authority is virtually unlimited. People will be willing to do far more for you, the company and the customer than you can ever demand. You will harness their enthusiasm, creativity, loyalty and commitment — those precious intangibles which are never for sale — but you must earn them every day.

In the excellent book Influence Without Authority (Cohen and Bradford), the authors develop an excellent exchange model which lists 21 currencies of exchange on Table 1. I never realized there were so many valuables with which to build a relationship. Read the book. It is packed with “ah-ha's” too involved for this article.

Our brief time together allows me to share one simple yet powerful technique to aid in soliciting support from others when you have no authority. This process has served me well; I have shared it with thousands of people on four continents.

When you want to influence someone to “do something,” whether you have authority or not, I suggest the following:

  • Always use that person's name or nickname if they prefer. If you are on a first-name basis, use it, but don't take such informal liberties if Mr. Jones or Ms. Smith prefers those titles.
  • Use the word “please.” “Please” and “thank you” are courtesy cushions which soften the interaction.
  • Make your request in the form of a focused question. This was Socrates' secret; he asked his students questions because questions create answers. When we think of an answer ourselves, we tend to own and value that answer. The question identifies exactly “what” you want the other person to do.
  • Finally, state the reason “why” the task is necessary or “why” you found it essential to ask that particular person. When we combine the “what” and the “why,” people understand.

Tom and Bill are co-workers; there is no authority relationship between them. When Tom asks, “Bill, will you please do the time report for my section this Friday? Mary, the only trained person in my section, will be at home with a sick child until Monday.”

If you were Bill, how would you respond? “Sure, Tom, I would be glad to help.” And Tom would say, “Thanks, Bill, I really appreciate your support.”

Now, for the icing on the cake. Tom takes 30 seconds to send a note or an e-mail to Bill's boss. “Susan, please express my appreciation to Bill for doing our time report this week while Mary is out with a sick child. He's a real team player. Thanks.”

It has been my experience that when Tom uses this simple but effective tool, he not only gains the ability to influence without authority, but others in the office begin to model the same behavior. The team is now moving from a relationship grounded in authority, which tends to be limited to the last period in the job description, to one of influence based on positive professional relationships which far transcend authority. Remember, it is influence, not authority, which keeps an organization running smoothly.

Peter A. Land, MS, CSP, CMC, CPCM, is an international management consultant/trainer/coach. In the past 26 years, he has conducted workshops on a wide variety of leadership and management topics for more than 100,000 managers and executives on four continents in numerous industries. He recently spoke at HARDI's 2008 Professional Development Retreat. He is a published author and one of only three people in the world to hold professional credentials in speaking and consulting. Contact him at 334/271-2639, [email protected] or visit www.peteland.com.

Table 1: Currencies Frequently Valued in Organizations
Inspiration-Related Currencies
Vision Being involved in a task that has larger significance for unit, organization, customers or society.
Excellence Having a chance to do important things really well.
Moral/Ethical Currencies Doing what is “right” by a higher standard than Correctness efficiency.
Task-Related
New Resources Obtaining money, budget increases, personnel, space and so forth.
Challenge/Learning Doing tasks that increase skills and abilities.
Assistance Getting help with existing projects or unwanted tasks.
Task Support Receiving overt or subtle backing or actual assistance with implementation.
Rapid Response Quicker response time.
Information Access to organizational as well as technical knowledge.
Position-Related Currencies
Recognition Acknowledgement of effort, accomplishment or abilities.
Visibility The chance to be known by higher-ups or significant others in the organization.
Reputation Being seen as competent, committed.
Insiderness/Importance A sense of centrality, of “belonging.”
Contacts Opportunities for linking with others.
Relationship-Related Currencies
Understanding Having concerns and issues listened to.
Acceptance/Inclusion Closeness and friendship.
Personal Support Personal and emotional backing.
Personal-Related Currencies
Gratitude Appreciation or expression of indebtedness.
Ownership/Involvement Ownership of and influence over important tasks.
Self-Concept Affirmation of one's values, self-esteem and identity.
Comfort Avoidance of hassles.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons Inc. from Influence Without Authority. Copyright © 1991 by Allan R. Cohen and David L. Bradford. This book is available at all bookstores, online booksellers and from the Wiley website at www.wiley.com, or call 800/567-4797.
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