Key Takeaways:
  • For managers – why it’s important to empower your direct reports to influence up, across and outside your organization 
  • For individual contributors – strategies you can use to build informal authority to influence 

What Does it Mean to Influence Without Authority?

Last month, I traveled to India to speak at a leadership conference for women. I was thrilled for this first opportunity to visit India and get to know the country, especially its rich—and delicious—culinary diversity. 

As often happens in our post-pandemic environment, during my travels, I also had to deliver a virtual program for the global leaders of a long-time banking client. 

Allison Shapira prepares for a virtual presentation from India

The experience of traveling internationally felt like the perfect way to tap into the mindset of the global audience that would be attending my virtual program, which was on the topic of “Influencing Without Authority.” 

While preparing the virtual presentation, I reflected on the global implications of influencing without authority. Because it had such an impact on my trip, I kept coming back to the analogy of Indian food—a delicate combination of grains, spices, and vegetables, all carefully balanced to meet the palate of the diners to which it caters. 

Just as different aspects of food appeal to different palates, different styles of influence appeal to different personalities.

Influencing without authority is also a delicate balance of principles, including negotiation, persuasion, and trust-building. Like a chef preparing a meal, you carefully combine them to meet the needs and preferences of your audience, which could be 20 colleagues around the globe or one critical stakeholder. 

Influencing Without Authority has become one of our most popular programs. Clients tell us their people must be able to influence: 

  • “up” (to their manager, executives),
  • “across” (with colleagues in other functions), and 
  • “outside of” (with clients, vendors, donors) their organization.

At the beginning of the program, we highlight two types of authority defined by my teacher, mentor, and colleague, Dr. Ronald Heifetz of the Harvard Kennedy School: formal and informal authority. 

Influencing With Formal Authority

Formal authority is traditional, top-down command-and-control. It is  based on having the title or status to tell someone what to do. It is the quintessential parental justification, “Because I said so.”

Influencing With Informal Authority

Informal authority comes from other people, not from your organization. It’s what you build when you have to bring together stakeholders from various silos across your organization, and your success depends on their cooperation, but their success does not depend on yours. 

Our program focuses on ways to build informal authority, developing relationships of trust and connection with others so that you can be effective in your work. 

Here are a few Influencing Without Authority strategies from our program:

  • Negotiation Strategies: Find Tradables
    In a negotiation, “tradables” are concessions or offers that are easy for you to provide and of high value to your counterpart. For example, asking a colleague, “How was your child’s sports competition this weekend?” would be easy for you to ask and of high value for them to receive. When you answer the question Who Is Your Audience?, then you can find those tradables.
  • Trust-Building Strategies: Demonstrate Consistency
    In an article I wrote for Harvard Business Review, To Win Over An Audience, Focus On Building Trust,with my colleague and trust expert David Horsager, we discuss the importance of consistency. For instance, if you constantly email a colleague and request an ASAP response, but yet you take two days to respond to their email, your inconsistency reduces their trust in you.
  • Persuasion Strategies: What Sways Them?
    In my class at Harvard Kennedy School, I discuss Aristotle’s Three Modes of Persuasion and how they stand the test of time. Based on your stakeholder analysis, what arguments will be more persuasive to your audience? If you’re an audit director trying to influence the head of a line of business to take action, share an anecdote of another business head who dragged their feet, and the costly implications of that action, to create a sense of urgency to take action. 

By combining the right ingredients to meet our audience’s tastes and interests, we harness the power of influencing without authority.

Regardless of your role, industry, or seniority, influencing without authority is a critical business skill that we need worldwide. 

Use these strategies to get your most important work done and build relationships that will help you in the long term. 

Allison in India enjoying the culinary experience