Why Influence is more important than Authority?

In a world of complex, sprawling organizations, authority isn’t what it used to be. Sure, you may be the boss, but your title isn’t enough to get people to do what you ask. And your command is further diluted when you work in a team, collaborate across boundaries or rely on multiple partners and stakeholders.

That’s why personal influence is an essential leadership skill.

Influence is, simply put, the power and ability to personally affect others’ actions, decisions, opinions or thinking. At one level, it is about compliance, about getting someone to go along with what you want them to do. But you often need genuine commitment from others to accomplish key goals and tasks.

True commitment means you have succeeded in influencing people so that they’ll endorse and truly support you or your task or plan. And in today’s turbulent economy, when you’re so often implementing big change, cutting back on resources or dealing with tough challenges, you need all the commitment, or engagement, you can get.

When you influence people so they reach a place of genuine commitment, working relationships begin to improve. You see greater sustained effort and resiliency. Your colleagues become more efficient, creative and focused.

How can you influence others, and move them from resistance to compliance to commitment–especially when you have only the limited organizational authority of so many leaders today?

One element of being a manager that lures many to the profession is the idea of having some real authority, of being in control of something and of having the power to give orders and directions that make things happen. Managers have the authority to hire and fire employees, dictate assignments and tasks, orient subordinates to their specific roles and place in the organization’s pecking order, establish ground rules for acceptable workplace behavior and of course call meetings which most subordinates will feel obligated to attend.  In one sense, this is making some things happen.

But what if what a manager really wants to accomplish involves goals or objectives that will require the assistance and involvement of others who fall outside her or his direct line of authority?  in other words, what if you need the assistance of individuals you haven’t the authority to order or require to do anything?  Moreover, what if — given human nature — even some of those individuals over whom you have direct authority seem reluctant to do as they are told?

Almost at once on becoming a manager, the best managers come to appreciate the limits of the authority they possess.  Giving orders and directions is one thing, gaining compliance is another.  And the higher a manager rises in an organization’s hierarchy, the more challenging gaining compliance becomes, despite the greater positional authority they possess.

I believe it is not just the authority a manager possesses but the INFLUENCE he or she can exert to persuade others — subordinates, peers, and their seniors — to join them in pursuit of a specific goal that is the hallmark of their success.  Over time, the best managers are far more distinguished for the broad influence they exert over people, objectives and events, than they are for the raw authority they occasionally display.

Unlike the power of authority that resides in the position a manager fills, the power toinfluence cooperation and commitment from others resides within the character of the manager herself or himself.  One can cultivate a broad network of potentially useful and important colleagues –fill one’s Rolodex  as they say — but that alone is not enough.  What makes others want to work with us are those qualities of personality and character our daily behavior either does or does not display.

Influential managers are not afraid to reach out to others if their involvement in something represents a learning opportunity or can make an important contribution.  And influential managers gain that participation because they have a well-earned reputation as someone you can trust and rely on.  The best and most influential managers in my experience have all been exemplars of the following important character traits.

The legitimacy of their requests for assistance.  They do not waste your time with foolish projects or veiled attempts to lure you into doing their work for them.  When they ask, the task matters.

The integrity of their word.  You can trust these managers to do what they say.  These managers always follow through and honor their commitments.

Their commitment to reciprocity.  You can count on their reciprocal assistance when you need and ask for it.  One of my colleagues suggests a great way you can demonstrate your appreciation for the importance of reciprocity is to remember those who have helped you  by thinking of them when you have an extra resource or opportunity. People are always surprised to get something without asking and we can often do that.

Their demonstrated track record as a team player.  For them it is always about us and not about me.  And on this score, believe me others can tell.

Their willingness to share the credit for success.  These managers have their egos well in check and their concern for the success and wellbeing of others is evident in their actions.  They make certain the limelight shines on everybody.

Their open honesty and comradeship.  It is generally fun and rewarding to work with these managers.  This doesn’t mean they are jovial, fun-loving, or even funny.  They may well be pretty tough task masters.  But their openness and obvious commitment to the involvement and success of others makes you desire being a member of their team.

It might be helpful for all of us — and probably a little humbling — to ask our peers how we stack up when measured against these key traits.  The insight gained, however, would potentially  tell us a lot about the degree of influence we are likely to exert over the behavior of others.

On overall, influence beats authority in three ways:

  1. Authority is a power, influence is an ability
  2. Authority is resisted, influence is accepted
  3. Authority is obvious, influence is mysterious