Why Influence Without Authority Is a Vital Skill for Anyone
Whether you're an individual contributor or a leader, through proper influence you can get people to voluntarily comply, concede or change. Who doesn't want that?
When I first became a tech lead at Google many years ago, I was given my first big project and 3 other engineers to lead. With the enthusiasm of a naive first-timer, I got to work. I architected the solution, scoped out the work, and assigned the tasks. I thought my newfound TL title would give me the authority I needed to just tell people what to do, and that they would simply listen.
News flash: they didn’t.
As it turns out, the type of authority I thought would allow me to just tell people what to do was not the one I had. I couldn’t hire, fire, and decide people’s performance scores and bonuses. I had no positional power. The only power I had was my personal power, which was built over time with my expertise and reputation.
Even when I eventually got into a role that had positional authority, I still couldn’t simply tell people what to do and expect them to wholeheartedly comply. Sure, they’ll do what I ask, but they might also become secretly resentful.
With or without positional authority, to be effective and make people voluntarily listen to me and be excited about it, I needed to learn to influence without authority.
Furthermore, now after 14 years in the industry, I believe influencing without authority to be a vital skill, not just for Tech Leads, but for absolutely everyone from individual contributors to the C-suite.
Here are just some of the situations where influencing without authority is critical:
We just wrapped up the first cohort of my course “Impact through Influence - Influencing without authority in engineering teams”.
If you haven’t joined us the first time, here is the last opportunity to do so: Mar 20—Apr 2, 2024, classes start at 8 am PST Wednesday/Friday.
If you want to get anything done
Nobody works in a vacuum. As much as we might sometimes want to be left alone in our bubble, the reality is we depend on others and others depend on us.
At the team level, to get anyone you don’t have formal authority over to do or stop doing something, you need influence. At the organization level, the same principle applies. To align diverse groups towards a common goal, you need—you guessed it—influence.
This is particularly relevant in this day and age where organizations are becoming increasingly flat and cross-functional. Meta’s 2023 “year of efficiency” confirms the trend. After multiple rounds of layoffs, Meta became flatter because “it’s well-understood that every layer of a hierarchy adds latency and risk aversion in information flow and decision-making”. In a flatter organization, there are fewer managers, which means the organization will lean heavily toward IC without formal authority. How will they get things done? Via influencing without authority.
If you want to move fast
When I was at Google, my project was integrating with another organization based in New York, while my team was based in Mountain View. There were quite a bit of resources and changes needed to make the project work. Can you imagine what relying exclusively on authority would look like in this scenario? I’d have to tell my manager what I needed and they would have to escalate up until we found—in graph theory terms—our lowest common ancestor who had authority over both my team and the team I was working with. Since our orgs were highly disconnected, our LCA was the CEO. Relying exclusively on authority is not only slow but also highly infeasible, as you can imagine.
To move fast, you need to be autonomous and figure out who you need to influence directly for whatever purpose you have. You simply do not have the luxury of waiting around for your manager to use their authority and solve your problem. Also, I’m pretty sure that’s not what your manager wants either. They would rather you figure things out on your own.
If you have ideas and want to make them a reality
Unfortunately, it is not as easy as just going and doing it.
You and your time are resources. Your manager probably already accounted you for projects according to the team OKRs. Additionally, maybe your idea is not something you can accomplish on your own. And maybe it conflicts with other priorities.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
To make ideas a reality you need resources (time, money, and people) and you need people in power to approve those resources. You have to make a compelling argument to the right decision-makers and get their buy-in. Knowing how to make a compelling argument and what makes an argument compelling in the first place is all influencing.
By persuading, motivating, and making use of the strength of your relationships, your expertise, and communication skills you’ll be able to align higher-ups with your ideas and get their support.
If you want to find a larger scope
To get promoted to higher levels, you need to work on projects adequate for the level you aspire to get to. Sometimes these projects exist and sometimes they don’t, in which case you need to create them in a bottom-up approach.
Finding a larger scope is hard, so you’ll need to also look outside your team. Influence without authority allows you to reach across team boundaries, connect and collaborate with diverse teams, and get extra information from cross-functional partners to figure out what might be impactful problems that you can tackle.
If you aspire to any senior management role or even the C-suite
In the C-suite, you're often tasked with inspiring a vision and strategy across the entire organization, which requires the ability to connect with, motivate, and persuade people at all levels, many of whom you may not have direct authority over.
Influence in this context is about building relationships based on trust and respect. It's about understanding the different reasons why people are motivated and finding ways to align them with the organization's goals. This kind of influence is about leading by example, communicating effectively, empathy, and welcoming different viewpoints.
Additionally, in senior management roles, you frequently interact with outside parties such as investors, partners, and customers. In this context, the ability to influence without authority is extremely important. It involves creating mutually beneficial outcomes by utilizing your negotiation skills and understanding and addressing the needs of others.
In conclusion, the ability to influence without authority allows people to get things done, move quickly, and turn their ideas into reality. It also helps them achieve career growth and success. Moreover, influence without authority is essential for senior management roles and the C-suite, where inspiring a vision, building relationships, and achieving mutually beneficial outcomes are of utmost importance.
Remember, influence is more than simply persuading others. It involves effective communication, empathy, understanding different perspectives, and building trust and respect. It is about connecting with people, motivating them, and aligning them towards common goals.
So, whether you're a tech lead, an individual contributor, or aspiring for a management role, master the art of influencing without authority and you will benefit from it both personally and professionally.
Until next time,
Your Caring Techie
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