Influence Without Authority

By Dave Zielinski May 12, 2011

It is a daunting challenge faced each day by human resource professionals who consult with line managers on performance issues. The line leader holds a loftier title or higher rank than the HR staffer and mig​ht be skeptical of how a staff employee can help solve a vexing performance problem in an area where the leader is an acknowledged subject matter expert.

These scenarios call upon HR employees to have “influence without authority,” or to be accepted as trusted advisors without the “position power” or status that makes people pay attention.

Allan Cohen, a business professor at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., and co-author of Influence without Authority (Wiley, 2005), says the heart of influence is reciprocity and exchange, and it begins with intimate knowledge of line customers’:

  • Measurements of success and rewards.
  • Most vexing issues.
  • Preferred methods of communication.

“I always say to avoid the Golden Rule in internal consulting because it will get you in trouble,” Cohen said. “It’s not ‘do unto others as you would have done unto you’ but rather ‘do unto others as they want to be done unto.’ You need to figure out the thorns under the saddle of the [people] you’re trying to influence and tie your services directly to what matters most to them.”

You likely will not get a line manager’s ear—or respect—until you frame performance issues in a way they relate to and speak their language. Consider, for instance, the call center manager who requests more skills training for staff as a solution to recent customer service problems.

Cohen said the HR partner who suspects training might not be the answer has to be prepared to tell the manager: “Training could be the solution here, but you don’t want to waste a lot of your people’s time or the department’s money if it turns out it isn’t the right answer. Can you give me five minutes to talk about the performance issue and see if we understand it correctly?”

Cohen said this is more effective than saying: “We haven’t finished a full analysis of the problem yet, and we’d like to gather more root-cause data and put together a task force to study the issue in more detail.”

“You have to deliver the initial message in a way the manager is used to hearing or you won’t get them to consider the range of potential approaches or solutions,” Cohen added.

Start Where They Are

Nancy Smith, director of strategic partnering for Exemplary Performance, a consulting company in Annapolis, Md., says effective influence has as much to do with how certain HR jobs are designed as it does with cultivating individual skills.

“HR generalists or trainers are often put in consulting roles without any real redefining of their jobs,” Smith said. “The workflow stays the same, and they still have a lot of tactical and transactional work. But if you don’t make space for them to build close relationships with line partners, it’ll be difficult for them to find time to establish trust and credibility with those partners.”

Once people are given time, one of the most effective influence tactics is not to focus on educating or enlightening line clients but first meet them where they are, Cohen explained. If a marketing manager is convinced that increasing compensation is the key to slowing defection of pivotal talent, for example, but the HR consultant is hesitant to recommend that step before conducting a deeper analysis, it is best to start from that manager’s mind-set.

“Even though you might have a different diagnosis, start with talking about compensation. Once you show people you’re really trying to help them, you begin to buy enough credibility to stretch their view of what is really happening and consider solutions beyond preconceived notions of what needs to be done,” Cohen said. “If you start too far away from where your line client is, they’ll treat you almost like a transplant that needs to be rejected.”

That approach has helped Jean Larkin, chief talent officer for global insurance company XL Group, achieve consulting success in staff roles during her career.

“I might have a picture in my mind of what I want to accomplish with talent management in the company, but you need to start where your line partners are and understand the pace at which you can take them toward that vision,” Larkin said. “What will people accept right now that’ll get us one step closer to the goal? And using small wins, how might I move from ‘push to pull’ in getting people to embrace talent management approaches?”

Randy Woodward, director of training and development for Ho Chunk Gaming in Madison, Wis., says he is able to influence more effectively when in “ask” vs. “tell” mode with his line clients. If he is asked to help troubleshoot a systems issue, he will make sure not to overstep his bounds as an advisor.

“Line managers know how the system works, but my expertise is in examining how everything fits together and looking for problems,” Woodward said. “My function is as a guide to the system of process improvement, and I make it clear that any decisions regarding changes to processes will be made by them, not by me.”

Woodward says referential power can be as effective as position power or title in influencing others. “Referential power comes down to relationship building and showing results, both of which take time and access,” he said. “You can’t come in as a staff outsider and just assume people will immediately trust your knowledge or judgment. You have to demonstrate that on small projects before you can expect people to defer to it on bigger projects.”

Often, showing a hint of superiority to line leaders you are trying to win over dooms you to failure, Cohen explained. “They can usually smell that a thousand miles away, and you are dead before you begin,” he said.

Courage Required

Elizabeth Larson, CEO of Watermark Learning, a Minneapolis-based company that teaches influence and project management skills, said she believes that ample lessons in how to influence without authority can be drawn from the movie “The King’s Speech.” Larson said Lionel Logue, the speech therapist chosen to help stammering King George VI improve his speaking ability, has little to recommend him initially because he has no credentials and has unimpressive social status. Yet he shows three traits essential to influencing without authority:

  • Courage.
  • Preparation.
  • Competence.

For example, the therapist insists on equality with the king by holding speech therapy in his home and calling the king “Bertie,” while he expects to be called Lionel.

“It takes courage to recommend the right thing for our organizations like a new direction, a new process or a long-range solution when the organization only wants short-term fixes,” Larson said. “What gives us courage, of course, is knowing what we’re talking about.”

Dave Zielinski is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis.


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