Influencing without authority

Product Managers sell futures in never-before-seen, intangible things. To earn buy-in, you need to help people visualize what this is and get excited about it. If you’re asking people to give you resources to build it, they need to feel the painful void of not having this yet and to itch for it to exist.

This takes a little sales and swagger. You need buy-in from your boss, their boss, and key stakeholders. You also need support from influencers inside your company — people that everyone else listens to.

If you find yourself struggling to reach alignment, start by reading How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. There is only one thing I’d argue against in that book. You have to get someone to want the same outcome that you want, not just to want to do the same thing. If they are attached to a method rather than an outcome, you lose your support from this person if (and inevitably when) you have to pivot directions. Getting buy-in on a vision means you have an advocate until you’ve seen that vision come to life.

The term “Influencing without authority” amuses me. It assumes that if one had authority, it would be easier to influence. I’ve found the opposite to be true; people are often reflexively resistant to authority. It’s quite a bit easier to learn what people are really thinking when you don’t have any authority over them. This makes it straightforward to introduce new ideas and information to get them more aligned with the way you see things.

But whether you do or do not outrank them, you will always encounter people who are resistant to the changes required to bring your ideas to life. Perhaps they feel overwhelmed by the potential changes to organizational structure, to workload, to the effort required to earn their paycheck. Maybe they are resentful that you’re messing with “the way things are done around here.” Or perhaps, they are incredibly driven, hard-working people for whom your proposal just doesn’t line up with their understanding of the future — what motivates them, what vision they are working toward, which truths they believe. This last group of people is hardest to inspire toward your vision because they are already inspired toward another.

It won’t matter how right you are. For people who resist the change you propose, there is something in this person’s life that weighs heavier on them than you can push against. It’s a waste of your limited resources to keep pushing. The only way to overcome this kind of inertia is to spark within this person a desire for the same outcome that you have, for the same vision.

Look at the forces and ideas pulling those people toward their focus, instead of trying to find forces pushing them away from your ideas. You’ll have to zoom out a little to see this. If you can see the ideas that this person gravitates toward, it’s possible to find an even more fundamental truth that encompasses both of your viewpoints. That truth may help align people toward a new goal, together.

You don’t influence teams, you influence people. You steer teams by making small adjustments to the way you interact with the people on it. And to do this, you must first understand what each person worries about and wishes for.

This requires a considerable amount of empathy and a large investment of time. This also requires a willingness to be vulnerable. You must share your own motivations and fears, to build trust with this person so that they, in turn, open up to you. See if you can draw a connection between your vision and their personal success. There’s almost always mutual benefit in doing good, impactful work. It should go without saying that this nudge should always be genuine and have this person’s best interest at heart. People will see right through self-serving agendas.

Try articulating your vision a few different ways to different people. See what clicks consistently to nail your pitch. Have patience, too. It may take commitment to a vision over a longer-term for people to begin to really think about whether there’s something there to jump on board for.

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Silicon valley product manager. Founder, OrganHouse.org. Published thought leader and public speaker.