How to Influence When You Have No Authority

Sometimes you may find yourself in a position of wanting to affect change but not having the authority to do it. What then? Should you give up? No! Lisa B. Marshall, aka The Public Speaker, will share with you some great tips on how to make a difference even when you’re not in charge.

Lisa B. Marshall
5-minute read
Episode #329

Here is an interesting question from a listener:


I am an industrial engineer student. I recently volunteered for a student club whose goal is to build a greenhouse on the roof of the university. Another new member and I are trying to implement into the club some new ways of doing things, because mastering processes is our specialty, and we see some serious inefficiencies. For instance, right now they are using Facebook to communicate and to distribute tasks, but building a greenhouse on the roof of a university is too large a project for this inefficient method.

Here’s the problem: How do I say to the "president" of the club that we HAVE to do better than the old tool we are using, without being rejected because we are the news guys?

Continue your Podcasts, they're great!


Here's my response:

Influencing when you don’t have any formal power at work is difficult. Influencing when you’re the new guy is also difficult. Influencing a group of volunteers when you’re not the leader is even more difficult! This is the trifecta of influence difficulty—but it’s not impossible.

When you look at the research on influence, there is one researcher that comes mind: Robert Cialdini. He’s an internationally renowned expert of influence and persuasion who traveled around the world to see how people exert and react to various forms of persuasion. Cialdini literally wrote the book on Influence. Through his studies, he identified six primary “weapons of influence”: reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity. I prefer to call them “tools,” but the ideas and principles are the same.  

So let’s look at some of these tools specifically in terms of your question. I’d like to start with the tool that I believe is the best place to start in your situation: liking.  


Dr. Robert Cialdini says, “People prefer to say yes to individuals they know and like.” This is such an important concept for exerting influence, especially when you’re talking about working within a volunteer organization. Your goal should be to become more likable—that is to say, don’t try to convince with logic or knowledge, particularly at first. A growing body of research suggests that beginning with warmth (not strength/competence) allows trust to develop. which facilitates an exchange and acceptance of ideas. Without a strong foundation of trust, you run the risk of eliciting envy—an emotion involving both respect and resentment that cuts both ways. If people like you first, they will more open to your ideas and ready to hear your messages. 

Again, at first, it’s much more important to be likable. Even a few small,nonverbal behaviors, such as a nod, a smile, leaning forward, or a light touch to the forearm, can show someone that you are happy to be in their company and that you are listening—really listening. In addition, if you look at the research, we know that we like people who are similar to us, who compliment us, and who cooperate with us. So if you want people to go along with you, to connect with you, and ultimately to be persuaded by you, then it’s important to discover genuine similarities with the other volunteers, to give sincere compliments, and to remind others of your mutually shared goals (to build the best greenhouse and to support the school). One word of caution: Don’t fabricate similarities. Your goal, through shared activities and conversations, is to find genuine similarities and highlight the positive attributes that you value in the other volunteers. When YOU begin to like your fellow volunteers and feel more connected, they will naturally like you more, and thus be more apt to be persuaded by you. Be friendly, courteous, respectful, and charming. In short, be likable.  

I want to add another word of caution: Research suggests you will likely feel compelled to demonstrate your competence—your strength—in your case by first presenting your innovative ideas, but that's a mistake. So it's really important to remember that we look for evidence of trustworthiness first. The first thing we look for (and judge) in others is how much we like and trust them (not how competent they are).  

However, that does not mean you don't eventually express your competence. When it comes to influence, it's when you combine warmth with strength that you get the best results.


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.