A leadership title is not a prerequisite to being influential.
Influence needs no title, though they often go hand in hand. But being influential is not about being the most popular, outspoken, or having the biggest paycheck in the room. It’s one approach, but usually not a successful one. Rather, influence is:
The capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself.
For example, influence in the work environment is as simple as providing your opinion on next steps, judgments about a product, or displaying professionalism, sincerity, and collaboration with your colleagues. As a result, you influence the direction and course of the project, influence what others think about that product, and establish a certain tone for the work environment.
Another way to influence people is to take a leadership role when there is no clear leader already established. For example, you might be tasked with participating in a collaborative, interdepartmental initiative where no point person is assigned to lead the way. How do you choose to interact with the team? Do you facilitate conversations, or do you wait for others to take the lead? Do you find way to contribute, or do you wait to be given instructions?
How do you influence your colleagues or a team when you don’t have express authority to do so? It takes time, patience, and most definitely the right approach — but the rewards for your career can be amazing.
Two types of influential leaders
Designated, conventional leaders like those in management or executive positions, lead from the front and influence others, in part, because of their title. They’re the visible person with the authority and responsibility to make things happen and get things done. But the way in which they influence their team, employees, or company is completely different than someone who is not in that role and doesn’t have a similar title.
Influence without the ordained authority is someone who takes on more of a lateral leader role, someone who can lead from within a group, inspire change in others, or be a source of inspiration.
It’s a powerful and impactful way to mobilize a team or those around you because the impetus for this change in others is not based on directing or dictating something to them and forcing them to follow blindly. Rather than forcing change on others, they cause change to take place by shaping or re-shaping the way the people around them want to act.
When you have influence without authority, you are someone who people listen to. What are the characteristics that make someone a person others want to listen to? It’s not just about being loud; in fact, it’s often more about being quiet — being aware, smart, and a good listener — that will take you far.
What does influence look like?
Think about people who you admire and trust. What qualities, characteristics, and skills do these influential people have?
To try and become a more influential person when you don’t have the title to match it, think about how you will model these characteristics and build them in yourself.
An influential person is:
Trustworthy and reliable
Building trust means leading by example, through actions and not just words; if you say you’re going to do something, do it. Give people a reason to follow and trust your lead. That consistency will be noticed by others and will come to be expected and relied on.
Treating others with respect and acting with authenticity, honesty, and transparency builds reputation and rapport; being “fake,” having ulterior motives, or hiding information so that you can grab the spotlight elicits the opposite feelings and leaves a bad taste in people’s mouth.
Building a trusting relationship with others also relies on owning mistakes or errors and admitting when something doesn’t go well; apologizing or explaining why a decision went sideways shows those around you that you are someone who can take responsibility for your actions; acting in the best interest of the team over your own needs will not go unnoticed.
Takeaway: Actions speak louder than words, and authenticity is key.
Influential people are caring and have the ability to empathize with others. Empathy is being able to imagine what someone else is thinking or feeling, putting yourself in their shoes and sensing their emotions. This is super useful information!
Knowing where that person is coming from means you can more easily figure out what they don’t understand (what information are they missing?), what do they understand (no need to re-explain that concept), and how to tailor your approach (how do they process information best?).
See how empathic you are through the Greater Good in Action’s Empathy Quiz, which also gives you a few tips on how to be more empathic if you score a little low, such as:
- Active listening. Really listen to what someone is saying to you, paying attention to the verbal and nonverbal cues. You’ll learn more, and the other person will feel more trust with you when you give them your full attention.
- Share in both positive and negative events, expressing happiness and joy or frustration and disappointment, creating deeper bonds. Being happy for someone or feeling their pain and comforting them through a difficult time shows you care and are supportive through the ups and downs.
- Look for commonalities. People feel more connected to others when they see themselves as similar, so ask questions and learn about the people you’re going to be working with, to see what you can connect on. Try to be conscious of your biases; are you less likely to listen to someone who works in a different department? Instead of seeing them at “outside” your normal world, try to identify one thing you have in common that makes them seem like someone you want to listen to.
Takeaway: Build your empathy muscle and always try to treat others how you would want to be treated.
Taking the initiative and being proactive to recognize inconsistencies, offer solutions, act as a sounding board to your colleagues, or proactively look into issues shows professionalism and circles back to enhancing your trustworthiness and reliability. Don’t wait for someone to show you the answer; be the person who helps create the plan.
This doesn’t necessarily mean taking over the meeting; after all, if you are not officially in a leadership role, trying to force yourself into a leadership position can come off wrong. Instead, try more subtle ways to drive the conversation in a productive direction. Ask smart questions, and make connections that help the group move forward.
Being proactive also applies to your relationships with other people. Proactively reaching out to colleagues, asking for their opinions or ideas, or just chatting them up to learn more about them as a person makes everyone feel good.
You can also seek out people you think are influential or inspiring; share why they’re an inspiration to you or something they taught you. You can always send an email or find an opportunity to connect with them in person; building relationships like this will help continue to learn how to be a leader, by setting you up with informal mentors who continually inspire and teach you.
Takeaway: Be proactive in your relationship building efforts and anticipate issues, concerns, or needs.
Skilled at communication
Communicate your ideas in ways that are easy for others to understand. Think about the best way to say what you want to say: what’s the simplest explanation, do you have clear examples at the ready, have you considered alternatives and done some research?
Influence and persuasion aren’t limited to verbal communication alone, but extends to written communication as well. How you word something and how you punctuate can either bring someone around or shut them down.
Being confident and displaying it in your body language also makes what you’re saying more persuasive; make eye contact, have an energetic tone, and use clear, concise language.
But confidence doesn’t mean being a know-it-all. Use open communication methods to encourage others to participate and feel included with open ended questions. For example, try “tell me what you think about x versus y?” or “how did you find such and such experience went?” This approach will make others feel comfortable sharing their perspectives and keep the conversation a conversation, not a directive.
If you help other people find the right answer — as opposed to just telling them what you think the right answer is — you will empower them. Play the long game; instead of always trying to get credit for the good idea, try instead to become someone who is always part of the conversation when the right answer is found. Long term results will speak for themselves.
Takeaway: Communicate openly and clearly, and help other people win.
Being a subject matter expert, or learning something so well that you become the go-to person for that topic or issue, makes you a valuable resource.
Stumped by a recent computer upgrade? Learn what the problem is and how to fix it yourself; chances are, others will encounter the same problem and you’ll be able to help, as well as learn something new.
The more you know and grow, the more helpful you can be to those around you and the more your colleagues will come to appreciate and rely on your smarts.
Influence, in order to be effective, is not aggressive, forceful, bossy, or stubborn. It is timed appropriately; it is open and authentic; it is invested in the success of the team.
Talk to your manager or executive; go to them with ideas on where things could use a change or ask them where you can help make more of an impact. See if there’s a strategy you can develop together, ensuring they’re looped in and aware of your ideas and efforts.
Also, take baby steps. Change doesn’t happen overnight. You are playing the long game; look for ways every day that you can make a positive impact on the people around you. Offer up ideas, compliment people on their great work, and help people get things done. You will slowly but surely change the way people think about you.
Do you work with someone who is an awesome lateral leader or are you one? Who do you look up to, trust, and seek insight from? We want to know! Share your thoughts with us on Facebook.