Woman leading a meeting

Photo: Canva

Leading without authority: How to build influence in the workplace

You don’t have to wait until you reach the top to become a leader

Upasna Gautam is an RJI Columnist whose column explores and shares actionable insights into different facets of career and leadership development.

There’s a common trait of successful managers that we hear about a lot: “The ability to lead without authority.” It’s the ability to be seen as a leader no matter what your title is. Regardless of what your role is, it’s one of the most important skills to develop for career growth.

As a result of honing this skill, you’ll build stronger relationships with your teammates, customers, and stakeholders. When you’re able to lead by example and inspire others to join in your mission, you’re more likely to build trust and meaningful rapport. 

In today’s workplace, more and more people are finding themselves in positions where they need to lead without authority, especially those who often have to work with cross-functional teams and stakeholders to get things done.

Building this skill allows you to influence others without having to rely on your position or title. This is especially important where teams are often made up of people from different departments and with different levels of experience.

Relying on your own abilities to get things done enables you to be more persuasive, more creative, and more adaptable. These are all essential skills for any leader, regardless of their position.

By following these key principles, you will inspire others to achieve common goals, establish yourself as a leader, and build essential communication skills:

  1. Take calculated risks. Leaders voluntarily take on the hard problems that most people avoid. They are able to see the big-picture implications of what they are doing — they seek to understand its impact. This means being strategic and looking at all sides of an issue and the consequences of various actions. Sometimes this means questioning authority (in a respectful way) and challenging the status quo. 

Example: You’re a product manager working on a new feature for a website. You see that the current process for submitting feedback is cumbersome and inefficient. Instead of just complaining about it, you take the initiative to come up with a new process that’s more streamlined and user-friendly. Your suggestion is met with some resistance from the team, but you’re able to convince them to give it a try. The new process is a success, and it saves the team a significant amount of time and effort. The team now has greater trust and respect for you, and it will become easier to align with them on other initiatives in the future. 

  1. Express gratitude. You don’t need a management title to give kudos to your peers, publicly express appreciation, and recognize others for their contributions. Being willing to share praise and spread the spirit of positivity will make you stand out – it’s one of the most low effort and high impact actions you can take. You’ll be seen as someone who understands the importance of positive feedback in motivating and engaging others.

Example: You’re working on a project with a team of engineers. One of the engineers comes up with a brilliant solution to a problem that’s been holding the project up. You make sure to thank the engineer for their hard work and dedication, and you let the rest of the team know about their contribution. This shows that you appreciate the work of others, and it also shows that you’re willing to share credit. This can help to build trust with your team, which is essential for being seen as a leader.

  1. Have high agency. Influential leaders are proactive, self-motivated, and they do things without being asked or told. By maintaining focus on the core goal, they identify needs, and they act to fulfill these needs without waiting for management direction. 

Example: You’re a manager who’s responsible for managing a team of designers. You see that the team is struggling to keep up with the demands of the project. Instead of just complaining about it, you take the initiative to find a solution. You work with the team to develop a new workflow that’s more efficient. You also make sure to communicate with the team regularly to keep them up-to-date on the project’s progress.

  1. Exude optimism. Influential leaders stay above the fray and don’t get caught up in blame, negativity or office gossip. They remain focused on the important things and wear their can-do attitude proudly. This kind of positivity is a powerful, differentiating factor in many work environments. 

Example: You’re a manager who’s working on a new product launch. The launch is a few weeks away, and there are still a lot of things that need to be done. You could easily get stressed out and start to worry about everything that could go wrong. However, you choose to stay positive and focused on the big picture. You know that the team is working hard, and you believe that the product will be a success. This positive attitude helps to keep the team motivated and focused, and it ultimately leads to a successful launch.

  1. Think outside the hierarchy. Don’t limit yourself to your own role or department. Think about how you can contribute to the company as a whole. Leaders think beyond their role, function and department. They have a keen interest in what’s happening in other departments. They engage with others throughout the organization and volunteer to be part of multi-disciplinary teams. 

Example: You’re a manager who’s responsible for developing a new feature for a website. You realize that the feature will require some changes to the website’s backend code. However, you don’t have any experience with backend coding. Instead of just giving up, you reach out to the team of engineers who work on the website’s backend. You explain your idea to them, and they agree to help you develop the feature. This shows that you’re willing to collaborate with others and that you’re not afraid to ask for help. It also shows that you’re thinking about the company as a whole, not just your own department.

Woman leading a meeting
Photo: Canva

Leading without authority can be challenging, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Being a leader is not about having a title — it’s about inspiring and motivating others to achieve common goals. Anyone can be a leader, regardless of their position or title. It all comes down to your ability to influence others and to get things done.

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