4 Steps to Influence Without Authority


Leadership is the ability to motivate others to risk, sacrifice and engage. It’s not necessarily a job title or position—there are times when you will have to lead but you won’t have the power structure that generates leverage.

So what can you do to influence others in these situations? One strategy is to frame a request or an opportunity in a way that “creates an eager want.”

Here’s an example of what I mean:

I recently brought a pair of sandals to the local Patagonia store because one had broken and was unwearable. My goal was to see if they would consider a discount on another pair. After stating my case, I browsed the store waiting for the verdict. Moments later, the store manager approached me and said, “Because of the way you handled this, we are giving you a full credit on the shoes toward anything in the store.”

She added, “People come in all the time with negative or entitled attitudes whereas you made us want to help you. Thank you.”

Wow, expectations exceeded. Even a “thank you”!

The next time you’re faced with an opportunity to lead without the formal authority to back you up, try these four steps, based on my experience at Patagonia:

1. Come from a positive place. I approached the exchange with an expectation of good intentions on all sides. I was about to have a conversation with human beings; and most human beings like to help others. I also considered the legitimacy of my request while also realizing that the store would have to be flexible. The process helped me relax and smile, and talk in a friendly tone.

2. Ask with confidence. We get what we ask for, or less, rarely more. When we ask expectantly and confidently, it clearly defines the opportunity for the responder. I very quickly made my case by showing the sandals and then asked directly, “Would you consider giving me credit toward the purchase of another pair?” By clearly asking I was laying the path for the solution, not just identifying the problem.

3. Give them a reason to say yes. After asking for the credit I added, “Patagonia always has such strong customer service, which is one reason I love shopping here.” This wasn’t manipulative flattery. This was a genuine affirmation of the historical evidence supporting a positive action. Sometimes people need to be reminded of their capacity for good. By connecting the two, I was giving them the rationale to say yes—to recognize that if they didn’t allow my request, they wouldn’t be living up to their own established reputation.

4. Let them own their decision. Finally I said, “I trust your decision. I’ll feel good about whatever decision you make.” And I meant it. I smiled and walked away as they mulled it over. This statement empowered the store manager to own the decision and feel free to do what she thought was best.  It also recalibrated my own expectations so I would be able to view any helpful response as a success. Whether you have formal authority or not, it’s much easier to motivate people to action when the experience is collaborative instead of one-sided. 

As we’re increasingly expected to manage cross-functional projects, share resources and informally work to influence, these four steps will help build leadership and inspire constructive action from any position.

At their essence, they’re about connecting with people in a positive way, human to human. It’s a simple point, but one that is all too often forgotten, both in formal and informal leadership situations.

What about you? Are you seeing a greater need to lead without formal authority in today’s environment? What helps you build influence?

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