July 20, 2018

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Leading from Behind - The Art of Influence

Too often I’ve heard mid-level managers and individual contributors bemoan their lack of authority or power to get things done in their organizations. This complaint, of course, is not limited to “line” employees who carry out the driving missions of their companies, but also to legions of support staff from the folks in accounting to the individuals at the reception desk.

When you think about typical organizational structure and the hierarchical nature in which most companies operate, none of this is terribly surprising. The “boss” has the power, by definition, to hire, define assignments or working conditions, reward, punish, fire, etc. This is the traditional definition of organizational power. The ones at the top of the pyramid roll stuff down for the folks at the bottom to deal with.

Sometimes we’re fortunate and the people at the top who wield the organizational power are also fine leaders. They involve and inspire the people in the ranks and everyone accomplishes amazing things. This is the ideal combination of organizational power and personal power; individuals who have authority also earn followers’ allegiance through their ability to find the keys to individual and group leadership.

It’s important to recognize the sources from which power comes. The source of organizational power is pretty straightforward - it’s the traditional hierarchy upon which the vast majority of organizations are built. The source of personal power is a little less obvious, and it relies more on an individual’s ability to influence both people and process in subtle and effective ways. Organizational power is given from above. Personal power can be earned from any direction – above, below, and parallel.

The greatest news about personal power is that anyone can use it, and when applied with integrity, it tends to grow. The skills that contribute to building personal power are primarily relationship and communication skills. How does one, for example, earn the right to readily share an opinion? By listening to those of others! Building relationships is the first step in elevating your ability to influence. The use of power or influence to advance one’s ideas in positive ways also means building relationships vertically and horizontally in the organization.

Earning the trust of those who hold organizational power means that they need to know who you are and what you’re capable of contributing. The boss can’t learn to trust you if he doesn’t know what you think. Share your opinions in open, but always positive, ways. Ask questions that demonstrate your grasp of the issues or your willingness to learn. Come to the table with ideas and solutions, not just the problem that needs fixing. Be alert and aware of opportunities to support your boss in the achievement of his or her goals.

Leading and influencing your peers also comes from building relationships and partnerships. Are you the one always asking for help or the one who offers it before being begged? Do you freely share information that people need to know when they need it? Get to know people in every area of the organization - not just the line groups, but the support areas, too. You’d be surprised where you can gain helpful insight and information! It’s the “Survivor” episode at the office instead of on the island. Build your alliances wisely and with an eye toward mutual survival.

Influence and leadership are at least as important with those who report to you. This also applies to people who are not in your direct line, but with whom you may work who are in a lower strata in the organization. While you may have the organizational power to get your team to do the things you want them to do, it is ultimately much more powerful for them to want to do it for you. Develop that sense of loyalty by showing your own loyalty to them. Stand up for them in tough situations. Listen to their ideas with respect and thoughtfulness, in the same way you’d want your boss to hear you. When they make mistakes, encourage them to find the right answers, but offer guidance before recriminations.

The art of influence is the art of communication, the art of listening, the art of sharing information and ideas. Building those strong relationships throughout the organization is the surest path to developing personal power - the sort that people want to follow.

- Paula Roy

Paula Roy is a recognized expert in behavioral interviewing and in developing comprehensive selection strategies. Using a comprehensive project management system, Paula has developed the productivity and effectiveness of sales teams, project teams, and executives. She earned her degree in communication and management and has completed extensive study and research in adult learning theory and methodology.