Can you exert a positive influence over your work environment and career prospects even if you don’t hold a senior management or executive position? Does holding such a position give you both authority and influence? Good questions!
First of all, what’s the difference between the two terms or concepts? “Authority is a social, political and business structure that grants an individual rights to make decisions and give orders. … Authority is the power or right to give orders and make decisions. Influence is the ability to affect ideas and actions.”
Authority Without Influence
Effectiveness on the job, at whatever level (even C-level executive), can improve significantly when you have both authority and influence. Sometimes that’s possible, other times maybe not.
However, it’s important to remember that having the right to make decisions and issue orders doesn’t ensure a successful outcome–for you or for the organization.
As has been abundantly demonstrated over the years, you can intimidate and coerce people into taking action according to your orders, but the overall effect isn’t necessarily desirable. In fact, companies have been seriously damaged by authoritative management that didn’t take into consideration the demotivating and demoralizing effect of that kind of “leadership.”
So what are the alternatives?
Influence Without Authority
We can’t discount the weight an organization gives to authority, however much we might like to at times. For instance, if you have an obstructionist for a boss, trying to go counter to his/her directives could be career suicide. Even at senior levels, you undoubtedly have a board or someone else to answer to.
On the other hand, if you’re really good at “leading by example” and giving guidance in a way that doesn’t come across as authoritative, you might take on an influential role without direct authority. To use a term that admittedly has become somewhat overused, you could become a “go to” person in your group and potentially throughout a wider section of the company–ideally, someone your boss values and supports.
That’s probably a better route to on-the-job success than single-minded pursuit of the authority you hope will enable you to direct operations the way you think they should go.
This outcome is also something you can’t achieve overnight. It takes a lot of thought and sustained, wisely focused effort to become the kind of resource that can positively affect business outcomes on a wider scale or over a longer period.
On-the-Job Success in Difficult Circumstances
When you have a toxic boss or organization, the question of influence vs. authority can become moot. If you exert your best effort over a prolonged period and can’t effect a distinctly positive change, it might not matter whether or not you have authority. In that case, your best course could be to gain what you can from your time there and plot a course to take you out of the situation for a more promising opportunity elsewhere as soon as possible.
Ultimately, you could become the kind of leader who transforms authority from a sometimes negatively viewed term into one that supports great leadership–the kind of leadership that makes influence as important as authority, if not more so. For example, when you inspire others to accomplishments that exceed even their own expectations, you’ll have launched your career on an influential path that could have a lasting impact.