Leading Outside Your Authority

Being confident and speaking from a place of strength will go a long way in convincing others to follow you, whether or not you have direct authority over them.

When most people think of being a leader, they think of guiding and influencing those over whom they have direct authority. This traditional form of leadership is often the easiest and most straightforward way to get work done, but formal authority is not the only kind of influence one can – or should – have in an organization.

As Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, former Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government professors and authors of Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Reading, put it “leadership is not the same as authority.” There is another way to get the job done and influence your colleagues even if you do not have direct authority over them. By displaying qualities associated with leadership while building networks and relationships throughout your organization and others, you can expand your influence in areas where you don’t have formal authority and get the job done more easily.

Influencing Without Authority

Like many managers, the success of your work might depend at least in part on those outside your sphere of direct influence, whether it is because they are in a different unit or division, they are on the same management level as you, or they work for another organization with which you’re collaborating. In these cases, you might not be able to use “traditional” modes of leadership and it is therefore important to understand how to convince people to follow your lead.

Leading those outside your direct hierarchy can be challenging

The goal of leading without authority is to get others to follow you and act willingly, rather than acting because you’re their boss and tell them to. In a sense, influencing without authority is about selling: you need to sell others on your ideas and why they should be a part of your action plan. Whether you’re an executive working with peers at other companies or a lower-level employee looking to get others to help with a project, being able to influence others is both an art and skill that will help you get things done.

Leading those outside your direct hierarchy can be challenging. According to the Harvard Business Review, there are two common challenges one faces when attempting to influence without authority. The first of these is being so focused on your own functional silo that you have trouble networking, and the second is the pressure to deal with work matters more urgent than the long-term project of building relationships. However, these issues can be overcome. Take the time for informal get-togethers with colleagues, where you can find out who people in your organization rely on for advice or support, and conversely, who tends to stop new ideas and projects in their tracks. Of course, in building these informal relationships, you might run into the latter problem of balancing daily tasks with long-term work. In this case, according to HBR, it’s important to set aside specific time to work on building influence, such as having lunch once a week with someone outside your direct authority.

Challenges Women Can Face When Influencing Outside Their Authority

Leading outside of their direct hierarchy can come with its own particular challenges for women. Every day, there are articles about women not having role models for leadership, being too modest, not being taken seriously, and as noted by Robin Ely, Herminia Ibarra, and Deborah Kolb, professors at Harvard Business School, INSEAD, and Simmons School of Management, respectively, not seeing themselves as leaders:

“Biases accumulate and in the aggregate can interfere in a woman’s ability to see herself and be seen by others as a leader. If constructing and internalizing a leader identity is central to the process of becoming a leader, as recent theory would suggest, then these subtle yet pervasive forms of gender bias may impede a woman’s progress by obstructing the identity work necessary to take up leadership roles.”1

This doesn’t mean that women can’t or shouldn’t lead, with or without authority. It means being aware of the biases and challenges women leaders face and rising to confront them. If you take ownership of your work and present yourself as a leader, others throughout your organization will begin to see you as a leader. Being confident and speaking from a place of strength will go a long way in convincing others to follow you, whether or not you have direct authority over them.

You need to sell others on your ideas and why they should be a part of your action plan

According to Ely, being able to influence without authority can have positive effects on women’s leadership abilities. The kind of leadership necessary to create organizational change and put women in leadership roles includes “the capacity to reflect on and learn from our own life and experience, soliciting and integrating feedback from others, remaining continually open to reevaluating beliefs in the face of new information that we ‘know’ to be true, and maintaining clarity about your priorities and goals.” These are leadership qualities and skills anyone can develop, regardless of formal leadership status, and cultivating these skills will help you go far in both getting the job done and gaining more formal leadership if that is your ultimate goal.

How to Become More Influential

  • Establish relationships: You can probably think of a time where you helped out a colleague because you have a strong working relationship with them or you consider them a friend. This sort of personal capital is important when trying to influence without authority, as people have an easier time following the ideas of someone they like. Shared trust and respect go a long way in getting others to help you achieve your goals. You can build relationships by listening to and taking an interest in others, following through on promises, being responsive, and recognizing others for the work they do.
  • Leverage the power base you already have: You might not have an established relationship with someone you’re trying to influence, but maybe someone you have direct authority over does. Or maybe you have a working relationship with someone who works directly with the people you are now trying to influence. You can leverage these relationships in your power base in order to get the information and people you need to get the job done, whether it’s checking if someone read your email or convincing a colleague to follow your lead.
  • Establish credibility: In order to influence others, they must trust yourself and your ability to do a good job. This means showing that you’ve done your research, know the facts, and understand the impact your ideas and actions will have. Demonstrating your own credibility and excellence will make people want to work with you. In addition, it’s important to show that you understand your organization as a whole, not just your part of it – especially when working with others who work in different parts of the organization. This can feel more difficult for women, who sometimes must meet a higher bar to establish their credibility, due to antiquated ideas and biases. If you demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about, the right people will be willing to follow you. However, take care to not present yourself as inflexible. Keep learning, even if you think you know everything you need to.
  • Understand and adapt to the working/social styles of others: In trying to influence others, it’s helpful to meet them where they are, instead of assuming they’re starting from the same place or working in the same way as you. Some people might be more analytical, some might need pictures or infographics, and others might need to hear as many details as you have. In addition, some people might be more social and willing to build a personal relationship than others. It’s important to recognize the working and social styles of whomever you are trying to influence and make sure that you work within those parameters. You can also help others understand your own working and social styles by acting with consistency – you don’t need to be totally predictable, but if other people have an idea of how you might act or react in a situation, it will help you work better with them.
  • Be a team player: There will be times when someone who doesn’t have direct authority over you will need your help. Spend some time being helpful when asked. If you demonstrate that you’re a team player who can help others, people are more likely to help you when you need it. Just remember that, generally, your own work should come first. Sometimes, both of these aspects can be a challenge for women. Women can feel pressured to protect their own interests and guard their own work when it seems that the world or organization is rigged against them. It’s important to find the middle ground where you can help others, show your competence, and get your own work done.
  • Synthesize and simplify: It’s likely that those you are trying to influence have plenty of their own work to do. Whether or not their time is limited, it’s helpful to synthesize your ideas and projects down to the most salient points. Providing only the details necessary to get your point across will make it easier for others to give you their full attention. In addition, make good use of short conversations. If you’re talking to someone you want to network with, make sure that you contribute a quick unique idea or interesting fact during every conversation. This will make you more memorable.
  • Make your work speak for you: It can be tempting to work hard and then expect others to notice you, but there are many people working hard across your organization and it can be difficult to get recognition without putting yourself out there. This doesn’t mean bragging or being cocky, but instead, being able to clearly articulate the value you’re adding to your organization and taking on projects or roles that get you noticed. This can be hard to do when you feel like you’re “just doing your job,” and research has shown that women are less likely to be comfortable talking up their accomplishments. But a little bit of self-promotion ensures you don’t get lost in the shuffle, particularly at a big organization. You might just be doing your job, but when you do it well, that should be seen and celebrated.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Emerging Women Executives in Health Care, a leadership development program for women featuring sessions on leading without authority. To learn more about this opportunity, click here.