Exerting Influence Without Formal Authority

Do you work in a position where most of your success comes from exerting influence over others rather than through formal authority? Even if you are in a position of formal authority there will be many times that you will not be able to use it. When you sit on your boss’s executive council, for example, you will be with peers and a superior and “do what I tell you” will be meaningless. There will be many times when you don’t have complete authority over a group of people (in a matrix organization) and need them to move in a certain direction. Or suppose you need resources but the CFO has numerous requests for limited dollars. But, even in those situations where you have complete authority, it is almost always better to lead through influence than through raw authority. Everyone prefers to do things because they want to rather than because they have been ordered to.

Nevertheless, ask anyone who has been in a position of formal authority and one where they had to gain movement by exerting influence and they will tell you the latter is more difficult and requires more refined skill sets. A successful manager must not only have competence, but must also have interpersonal skills and be able to build trust and confidence in members of their staff. A friend, who is an executive at FSG (a global social impact consulting firm), in an article entitled, “Exerting Influence Without Formal Authority” (Stanford Social Innovation Review, 12/7/13) has identified the sources of influence that enable you to be effective:


  • Competence: Managers with relevant content knowledge, and experience with strategic visioning and problem-solving, provide thought leadership that enables them to influence others by explaining the benefits of a given course of action. In addition to strong interpersonal skills and the ability to build trust, the manager must make sure people are kept in the communications loop and feel included.
  • Commitment: The manager demonstrates a track record dedicated to the issue at hand. There must also be evidence of significant ongoing effort to the initiative to inspire confidence in others that the manager is reliable and persistent. In other words, the manager is clear about their role and priorities and maintains focus.
  • Objectivity: The manager is viewed as believable when others view her/him as an honest broker with team success as the ultimate course of action and not in competition with team members. Staff members will be involved if they believe the manager is motivated by the common good and not personal gain. They need to feel that they will have voice and that all viewpoints are welcome. Staff must also understand that decisions need to be reached and that the manager may need to make the final call after input has been given.
  • Data and Information: The manager brings quality data and research to help staff understand problems, promote accountability, learn and improve. Perspectives of clients, suppliers and other stakeholders who operate in the real world are as important as theory. Ultimately, they seek empirical evidence through direct observation, practical experimentation, and direct engagement to determine a direction. This helps to professionalize the work and gives it credibility.
  • Network: The manager needs strong cross-sector contacts and relationships with clients to broker and mediate relationships between individuals and groups. Building networks enables the manager to broaden his/her sphere of influence which will be invaluable in helping to gain resources and solve problems. It also increases the probability the manager will gain the endorsement of senior executives within the organization, thus making it easier for the team to function at peak performance.
  • Visibility: The manager’s influence increases as awareness of the group’s success spreads among management, peers and clients. In particular, the role of the team in helping to move the goals of the larger organization forward. The manager needs to assume the role of communicating the goals of the team, the successes of the team and individual team members to the organization.

Does this sound like the successful manager should be an amateur psychologist? That is not a bad way of thinking about managing, because your success will be determined by the perceptions of your staff, management, peers, clients and other stakeholders. And, your colleagues can make goal achievement look good, or bad, depending upon what they think of your management style.