UNC Kenan-Flagler Insights

Influence Without Power

September 16, 2010 By Heather Harreld

Perhaps one of the most complex challenges leaders can face is motivating a group of people who do not report to them.

Influencing people you have no power over as direct reports requires a delicate balance of creating empathy and overcoming cynicism, notes Lynn Setzer, management and corporate communication lecturer at UNC Kenan-Flagler.

The biggest challenge for a leader in this scenario is to create empathy among the team for the job that they and others are being asked to do, Setzer notes.

“It’s way too easy in business life to see the company mission only through your own set of eyes and ears,” Setzer says. “Therefore, to the extent that the leader can create empathy — and therefore willingness to work together — that leader has a shot at achieving great things.”

Creating empathy is critical:
• So that other members of the team you are leading feel like you are on their side
• To ease adversarial feelings that may exist among team members
• To allow team members to feel that they are more than cogs in a wheel

“You have to have some sense of your people not just as workers but as people with hearts and lives,” Setzer adds. “You need to get to know your people. There’s more to teamwork than simply calling a group of people who show up to work together on a project a team.”

Overcoming cynicism
In addition to creating empathy among team members, leaders must overcome the cynicism that is ingrained in many corporate cultures.

For example, when a new leader comes into an organization that has just been acquired and notes that nothing will change in the acquired company, cynicism naturally will run rampant. Many employees have been in that situation before and people tend to “carry their hurts with them,” Setzer notes.

“Employees may mask it, but the cynicism is there,” she added. “They’ve heard the ‘work smarter, not harder’ and ‘there are no problems, only opportunities’ shtick a million times. To pierce the cynicism, a leader must deliver, on both the big and little promises.”

As you build a reputation for delivering what you say you will, people gradually will come to depend on you and be more motivated to contribute to the success of a project. If there is a perception about a leader that is not accurate, Setzer adds, it is possible to overcome that.

“People will make decisions based on how you treat them. How you treat them trumps what they may have heard about you,” she added. Most people have a pretty good meter for sorting out what is real and what is not.”

So, the next time you find yourself frustrated because the team is not following your lead, ask yourself:

• Have I looked at the situation from their view?
• Do my actions match my words?