Kathy McAfee, Professional Speaker & Executive Presentation Coach - America's Marketing Motivator

Kathy McAfee, Professional Speaker &
Executive Presentation Coach
Let's Talk. 860-371-8801 or Email me
Kathy McAfee, Professional Speaker & Executive Presentation Coach - America's Marketing Motivator
Kathy McAfee, Professional Speaker & Executive Presentation Coach - America's Marketing Motivator

Kathy McAfee, Professional Speaker &
Executive Presentation Coach
Let's Talk. 860-371-8801 or Email me
Kathy McAfee, Professional Speaker & Executive Presentation Coach - America's Marketing Motivator
Kathy McAfee, Professional Speaker & Executive Presentation Coach
Kathy McAfee, Professional Speaker & Executive Presentation Coach
Let's Talk. 860-371-8801 or Email me

Influence without Authority

“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.” –Ken Blanchard, consultant, author of The One Minute Manager

For the past two months, I’ve been studying the topic of influence without authority. I find it fascinating… and to be honest, frustrating, too.

The topic is extremely relevant to how work gets done these days. It’s integral to how change and innovation happens in the world. But influence is elusive, and there appears to still be significant barriers for people who want to make great things happen at work and in the world.

Influence at work

A valued client asked me to create a seminar on the topic of Influence without Authority. The goal was to engage their colleagues in a discovery session around how they could leverage their influence more positively at work through skill building, awareness, and motivation.

This organization has a very talented, accomplished and dedicated work force, but they are over burdened with the reality of competing resources, demanding schedules, and never-ending distractions that frustrate people and slow down real progress. Does that sound familiar?

Is influence a learnable skill?

Influence without Authority - book coverFortunately, there is a book published with this exact title. Influence without Authority, written by Allan Cohen and David Bradford, is now in its second edition. The authors claim to help you learn to lead people who don’t report to you, to build effective relationships and create allies, and influence your boss, peers, clients, and other partners. They even coined their own model, called the Cohen-Bradford Influence Model. It is based on the Law of Reciprocity, “The almost universal belief that people should be paid back for what they do – that one good (or bad) turn deserves another.” (page 13)

I appreciate a great deal of what these co-authors have to say, but I struggle with the “transactional” nature of their core proposition. I come from the school of relationship-based networking. I believe that getting things done through people is largely based upon the quality of your connections and the relationship equity that you have built up over time. The authors assert that “In organizations, all influence attempts simultaneously contain both a task and a relationship component.” (page 23)

“The greatest ability in business is to get along with others and to influence their actions.”  – John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress (1775-1777)

What is influence and why does it matter?

There are many definitions of the term, influence. According to the online etymology dictionary, the root of the word, influence, date back to the late 14th century- when it held an astrological meaning: “streaming ethereal power from the stars acting upon character or destiny of men.” Heavy stuff, no wonder it’s so elusive.

The meaning of the word morphed over the next century to suggest “exercise of personal power by human beings.”  Then it later became associated with excessive drinking and inebriation. (i.e., He was under the influence.)

My seminar group came up with additional definitions of the term, influence, that illuminate other aspects of this elusive force:

  1. The ability to modify other people’s behavior as you desire
  2. Ability to change others’ points of view or behavior by example, persuasion or action
  3. Directly or indirectly impacting the actions of an individual or group
  4. The ability to affect the current or future state

Influence word cloud collage - 3 greenThe group generated a list of related words, but the terms most repeated associated with influence were persuasion, affect, sway, convince, manipulate. Yes! Influence has a dark side, and must be used judiciously.

  • See the word collage that I created using their long list of synonyms. This art was created on the web site, www.WordItOut.com.

I believe that influence is the ability to positively change someone’s thinking, actions or outcomes …starting with your own. It has as much to do with external forces and internal control, including how you think. Influencing ourselves is the first, and perhaps most difficult task.

A cost-benefit analysis of influence

Having influence has many benefits. It allows you to get work done more easily. It can open the door to more resources, including budget, staffing, and authorization, to move your initiatives forward. Having influence also allows you to:

  • Impact people’s futures
  • Contribute to results
  • Set the agenda and determine the direction
  • Win more often
  • Gain special privileges
  • Receive recognition, credit and notoriety…even the Nobel Peace Prize!

Time magazine cover - most influential people in the world 2013But sometimes having influence can cost you dearly. Many people of influence have lost their lives as they leveraged their influence to affect societal change. Martin Luther King Jr. was the most cited example of a person of influence by my seminar group.

The first person that came to my mind when I thought of an example of influence without authority was Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for defying the local laws preventing girls from going to school. She survived the assassination attempt, and has gone on to dedicate her life to advocating for girls’ education. She has taken the issue of girls’ education to a global conversation. Interesting to note that some economists believe that girls’ education is the key to resolving world poverty.

Thank you Malala for leveraging your influence, and risking life and limb to change the way the world thinks and feels about the power and potential of girls and women!

Barriers to influence – the dirty dozen

Certainly having limited, or no authority can hamper your ability to influence, but don’t let it stop you from trying. My seminar group came up with an excellent list of external and internal barriers that prevent us from leveraging our own influence in the workplace. As you read this list, which barriers would you categorize as internal factors where we might have some say in the matter?

  1. Lack of self-confidence
  2. Fear of ridicule or repercussion
  3. Lack of time
  4. Negative thinking
  5. Unconscious bias
  6. Culture
  7. Budget
  8. Organizational structure and silos
  9. Lack of access or resources
  10. Systems shortcomings
  11. Management style*
  12. Remote work teams, co-location

*Whenever I see “management style” on a list like this, I assume that people are allowing themselves to be stuck in the trap of complaint and blame. It’s like a modern day version of the hamster wheel. It’s fun at first, but gets you nowhere. You just go round and round.

One of the internal barriers shared in the book, Influence without Authority, is “Assuming the other person will be an adversary rather than an ally.” The authors point out that this barrier “prevents accurate understanding, leading to misperceptions, stereotypes, and miscommunication and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.” (page 19)

Solutions to overcoming barriers

The seminar group came up with a great list of ideas on how to overcome the barriers to their influence at work. At first glance, you may not think that these ideas are powerful enough to stand up to the forces of authority. But they work. I know it because I implemented this first strategy with a client, and it worked. It always does, but I sometimes forget to leverage the power of direct communication and relationship, and instead try to influence through the passive medium of email.

  1. Communicate. More talking. Less email. One-on-one straight talk works.
  2. Connect. Get to know your colleagues and find common ground outside of work. Use your personal network and leverage peer influence.
  3. Build Allies. Trust others to get information and to make a case.
  4. Open Your Mind. Before you entertain a meeting or set the agenda, solicit others’ input. Listen to their ideas and their answers. Even if you are sure your answer is the correct one, it is clearly not the only one.
  5. Build Self-Confidence. Invest time and energy to sharpen your skills and abilities. Believe in yourself.
  6. Set Boundaries. Respect your values and those of others.
  7. Seek to Understand. Take the time to better understand other people’s motivations, pressures, demands, and goals.
  8. Lead by Example. As Gandhi once said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

One final thought on the subject 

Let me leave you with this final thought on the subject of influence without authority. I’d like to compare influence to muscles – something that we all have and use every day, perhaps without awareness of the power and magnificence of their function in our daily lives.

Influence, like muscles, must be developed and maintained through regular exercise in order to be of use to you and others.

Influence, like muscles, gives you the strength to lift things out of your way, and to do work.

Influence, like muscles, gets sore with overuse and needs rest.

Influence, like muscles, will atrophy, if left unattended for long periods of time.

Influence, like muscles, can be strained, torn, and injured, if misused.

Influence, like muscles, depends upon strong support systems to allow it to thrive.

Influence is within your reach. I encourage you to study it and to talk about it openly. Learn to leverage your influence more effectively to create positive outcomes at work and in our world.


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