Want to exercise greater influence? The answer is hiding in plain sight.
A product manager in her early thirties has to win the cooperation of colleagues in engineering, sales, and design to bring an updated product to market on schedule, but she has no direct authority over the employees in these departments.
A director of oncology nursing in a large children’s hospital needs her team of sixty-plus nurses to consistently employ a wide range of protocols, and she is sensitive to the perils of micromanagement.
A young marketing associate in his sixth month on the job regularly speaks up in meetings, but his good ideas either fail to attract notice or get co-opted by others who then take the credit.
All of these professionals face a common challenge: How can I be more influential?
For the purposes of this article, let’s say that exercising influence means moving others in your direction without resorting to coercion or bribes. It’s one thing to change a person’s behavior with the threat of termination or the lure of a big incentive. It’s much trickier to do so without direct authority, a senior title, or a well-earned reputation for expertise. This is the widespread challenge of exercising influence without authority.
Rather than focusing on tools for exercising influence, begin with situations: whom you are trying to influence, and what do you want them to do? These questions may seem simplistic, but they are critical to gauging your likelihood of success. One of the best ways to understand this is to consider your own perspective when others have tried to influence you.
Take a low-stakes example. A colleague you don’t know in a different department is trying to drum up an audience for a “lunch-and-learn” seminar with a guest speaker, and he wants you to attend. He describes the speaker in glowing terms and promises it will be an engaging session. It doesn’t require much from you — you’re taking a lunch break anyway, and there’s no cost involved. So you decide it sounds harmless enough. Your response may be something along the lines of, “Um, okay.” If something else comes along you may change plans, but you agree. He has influenced your behavior.
Now imagine that the person who invites you is a close colleague on your team. The two of you socialize outside work on a regular basis. In this case the decision is easy: as soon as you check your schedule, you say something like, “Sure, no problem,” or “I’m happy to come. It sounds like fun.”
The first case with your unknown colleague is transactional. He’s selling the lunchtime speaker session and you decide to buy because the price is right. In the second case, you respond to your close colleague based on the relationship. Chances are you would go to the session for her sake even if the speaker sounded like a bit of a dud.
Let’s raise the ante. Imagine that your close colleague wants you to back her in an initiative that faces significant opposition from some powerful interests within the organization. It may be risky to stick your neck out. But you agree with the merits of her case, and you know that she is counting on your support. So you sign on, because that’s what relationships are all about. You’re confident she would do the same for you in a similar situation.
And now consider if this high-stakes ask came from your unknown colleague. You see the risks all too clearly, and you don’t know this person well enough to gauge his ability to execute the initiative he’s pushing. The idea sounds good in theory, but there are too many unanswered questions. So you politely decline while thinking, “Good luck rolling that boulder up the hill.”
In the high-stakes case, the relationship makes all the difference. This is particularly so when positional power or specialized expertise does not set someone apart from the pack. Why is that so?
Think of your own experience with people who have approached you in a transactional manner. On some occasions you probably haven’t minded, but in the worst cases you may have felt used, like a pawn in someone else’s game.
Transactional situations can’t be avoided entirely; they are an inevitable part of the give and take of life in an organization. Sometimes savvy individuals will acknowledge a transaction up front, and this signaling can help increase trustworthiness because there is no question about intentions. But even the most charismatic individuals will hit limits in transaction mode.
So what’s the practical takeaway? When you need to exercise influence, your probability of success will increase significantly when you can draw on the strength of relationships. Look around at colleagues who manage to influence others without authority, formal or otherwise. Chances are this is their superpower. If you want to become more influential, invest your time in people, without expectations or ulterior motives. There’s no such thing as too much social capital.
 This definition is lovingly adapted from my old boss Joseph S. Nye’s definition of soft power, or attractive power, which he has described as getting the outcome you want without the use of coercion or bribes. Nye was describing the workings of power in international relations. Since influence often manifests itself more indirectly than power, I’ve defined it here as moving others in your direction rather than getting an outcome or result.