Influencing without authority

It’s been a big week on the world political stage, with President Obama’s inauguration and David Cameron’s speech on the future of the UK and the European Union.

It’s these high profile occasions that highlight how good (or otherwise) politicians are at getting their message across to the masses and bringing the nation along behind them.

The ability to make a resounding speech and send the audience away invigorated and enthused by what they’ve heard is of course crucial to winning support for any idea or ideology.  But what struck me while watching the coverage this week is that what the best political leaders are often really skilled at is influencing people over whom they have absolutely no authority.

Of course this is also a challenge that business leaders face on a daily basis.  The days when managers issued instructions and employees did what they were told without question are long gone.  Thanks to flatter management structures, an increase in outsourcing and a trend towards collaborative working, managers these days often find themselves having to influence people over who they have no direct control.

They may be leading joint projects involving teams across the business, for example, or perhaps managing collaborative ventures with external partners or even competitors.  So how do you exert influence over people who are outside your authority but whose support you badly need?

Focus on mutual benefit

In the new more collaborative world of work, it’s not just about what you want, but also what the other party needs.  Make the effort to find out what’s driving colleagues’ agendas and how you can help them achieve their objectives as well as your own.  They may be under pressure to achieve certain targets, for example, and be concerned that your plans or proposals will get in the way.  Identify what both parties stand to gain and you will have more chance of bringing people round to your way of thinking and achieving a win-win situation.

Make it personal

You have a much better chance of influencing people if you can establish a connection on a personal level.  The old adage people buy people definitely rings true when it comes to getting others on side with a project or change initiative.  If they like you and feel you share their values they are much more likely to trust your advice and buy in to your ideas.  So make the effort to go beyond the superficial and make people feel valued by showing a genuine interest in getting to know them.

Don’t just talk, listen

It’s easy to think that as an expert or leader you know all the answers and your way is the best way.  But being a good influencer is about listening to other people’s viewpoint, not just pushing forward your own.  Make sure you hear people out and consider their ideas.  You will win their trust and make them feel part of the final decision – and they may even bring you new insights and help you see issues in a different light.

Set the ground rules

We’ve all been involved in projects that just go round in circles because the parties involved can’t reach agreement on the best way forward.  Make sure you’re clear from the outset about what it is you want to achieve and decide who has the final say.  This is particularly important when you are working with your peer group and someone needs to balance conflicting views and make sure the right decisions are being made for the right reasons.

Demonstrate expertise

People will listen to you if they can see you know your stuff.  If you can demonstrate deep knowledge and understanding of whatever issue you may be working on, it will go a long way towards winning people’s support and respect.  Use your knowledge to help explain situations clearly to others, show them the pros and cons of a particular path of action and reassure them that what you are suggesting is the right way forward.

Exploit data

Thanks to major advances in technology, all managers now have a wealth of information at their fingertips. Make sure you use the data at your disposal to back up your arguments and help you make a strong business case for your proposals. An HR software system, for example, could give you valuable intelligence about sickness rates to support your case for a new approach to managing absence.  Give people the hard facts and figures and they will find it more difficult to argue against your plans.

Work your network

Being connected with the right people will be key to moving your project forward.  Make sure you know not just who the movers and shakers are – but also the ‘go to’ people who can open doors and give you access to the information you need.  If you can show the people you are trying to influence that you are well connected and have a good chance of getting top level support and financial backing for your plans, you are more likely to get them on side.  Don’t just use your network to impress – use it to help colleagues make new connections too.  If people can see you can help them broaden their network and increase their personal influence, they will want to stay on side with you.

Admit your mistakes

If it turns out the path you’ve been advocating is the wrong one or things don’t turn out the way you’d planned, don’t try and blame it on others.  Everyone makes mistakes and you will gain more respect from colleagues if instead of trying to pass the buck you hold your hands up and show willingness to learn from your mistakes.

Share the credit

It’s equally important that if things go well you don’t take all the credit yourself.  Make sure you acknowledge the contribution of the people you’ve been working with and thank them publicly for their efforts.  Influence isn’t a one off event and you need to build a reputation as a good person to work with.  You may have to work with the same people again in the future – or if not you will certainly come across others who are connected with them and will find that your reputation precedes you.

Ask for feedback

If you are serious about improving your influence, you need to know what people think about you and the way you operate.  Asking for honest feedback can be daunting and you may not always like what you hear, but it’s the best way to find out how you are perceived and what you may need to do to up the ante when it comes to bringing people along with your initiatives and ideas.

Of course none of these approaches will work in isolation.  The key is to find the combination of influencing techniques that best suits your particular circumstances.  It takes practice to hone your skills and calls for a different mindset around working with others – but if you invest time in planning your influencing strategy it will reap dividends.

What’s been your experience of influencing without authority? What’s worked best for you – or challenged you the most?