Five Ways to Lead Through Influence

Matrix lessons for managers

By Eric Krell Apr 16, 2012
Reuse Permissions

Not every manager has matrix experience, but many, regardless of the formal organizational structures they operate within, face a growing number of matrix-esque challenges. These hurdles, driven by economic volatility and global competition, include expanding job responsibilities, dual reporting relationships and responsibility for supervising decentralized teams.

A study identifies several leadership qualities that are crucial to addressing these emerging management challenges in organizational structures where employees report to more than one manager or supervisor.

“Whether purposeful or accidental, these [matrix and matrix-esque] structures have made leading and managing much more complex and challenging,” reported Scott Spreier, principal consultant for leadership and talent for management consulting firm Hay Group. “As often as not, today’s leaders must manage their teams and deliver results not through formal authority but through the ability to influence and collaborate.”

Friso van der Oord, solutions leader for LRN, a company that helps businesses develop values-based corporate cultures, agreed. “As the competitive landscape shifts to innovation, global relationships and talent leadership, leaders and cultural values need to be different,” he explained, noting that a Dell computer is made from parts from 18 countries and companies. “The direct authority model doesn’t work [at the computer manufacturer] because these organizations don’t report to Dell; they work with Dell because of the strength of their relationship and mutual gain.”

Behavioral Competencies

Hay Group research, derived from interviews with dozens of executives in matrix work environments, identified empathy, conflict management, influence and self-awareness as behavioral competencies leaders need to possess to succeed in managing in the matrix as well as in more global and complex organizations without formal matrix structures.

This raises pressing questions for managers: How can they develop their ability to exhibit empathy, manage conflict, wield power through influence (as opposed to direct authority), strengthen their self-awareness and acquire related collaborative skills?

David de Wetter, senior consultant for talent management and organization alignment for management consulting firm Towers Watson, has identified matrix-specific leadership must-haves (see “Managing the Matrix,” April 2011 HR Magazine). He said managers can develop their ability to lead through influence and collaboration by participating in projects and initiatives that cut across organizational lines.

“Whenever a team of people with different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives has to work together, individuals on the team have a golden opportunity to learn how to listen and how to collaborate effectively,” said de Wetter. “Such teams usually have a designated leader and, depending on project size, may have a formal governance model in place. Nevertheless, certain individuals often seem to emerge as natural leaders. You know who they are—the people everyone listens to. Why? Because those individuals are trusted; they are seen as thoughtful, constructive leaders whose point of view warrants consideration. Their influence transcends any formal team leadership role.”

Trust and transparency qualify as killer leadership apps, van der Oord asserted. “These two qualities enable a reciprocal relationship to emerge and endure,” he noted. “Without them, true, honest conversations do not occur and connections become superficial at best. There also needs to be consensus that influence, connection and collaboration are valued cultural traits that benefit both the individual and the organization. … If the organization still believes that information and talent should be hoarded, then collaboration won’t work. There needs to be a belief that when working together, the organization can rise to be greater than the sum of its parts.”

Creating an environment in which managers can strengthen their ability to influence and collaborate requires a mix of individual and organizational actions, noted Charlotte Anderson, SPHR, GPHR, manager, staff learning center, for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a professional association dedicated to advancing technological innovation and excellence. Anderson, who has worked in matrix structures for large corporations, recommended the following steps:

Stop rewarding leadership based exclusively on authority. Managers exhibit the behavior that is rewarded, Anderson explained, so organizations should ensure that performance management systems do not reward individuals who manage only by wielding their positional authority.

Embrace relationship-building skills. Ensure that performance management systems reward leading through influence and collaboration.

Provide Practice. Promote occasions in which future leaders can assume semi-leadership roles (e.g., on projects) so that they can practice influencing behavior before their work depends on it.

Look in the mirror. Managers should seek candid feedback on their leadership style from candid colleagues. “Examine your track record,” Anderson advised. “If you rely on your position or ability to impose consequences, you’re not influencing. Examine your natural conflict resolution and communication style, and start there. Learn the differences between influencing and negotiating.”

Promote role models. Effective influencers can serve as mentors and share their expertise with others via podcasts or video clips—think “Top Five Lessons I Learned about Influencing,” Anderson suggested.

Perhaps the most important step in cultivating a “leading via influence” approach is recognizing its importance.

Once an organization establishes this importance, Anderson said, “weaker leaders can be identified in a nanosecond when we observe their style of interaction with others, particularly toward subordinates. Anyone who relies on power to motivate or change behavior lacks true ability to influence…. Observe people who are both well-liked and successful; they’re likely influencers.”

Eric Krell is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.

Related Links

Reuse Permissions


Choose from dozens of free webcasts on the most timely HR topics.

Register Today

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect