Influencing Without Authority

Barbara van der Schalie, MS
Learning and Professional Development Manager
Clinical Research Directorate, Clinical Monitoring Research Program
Leidos Biomedical Research

Abstract: Effectively exercising influence, even when one may not have the formal authority to mandate action, is a challenge many clinical research professionals face in their daily work. This article describes the interpersonal and leadership skills necessary to ensure that one’s agenda is not only considered but actively requested, and how successful professionals build networks of relationships with stakeholders and influencers. This article explains the difference between influence and authority, identifies different sources of influence, and describes different influencing styles.


  • This project has been funded in whole or in part with federal funds from the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute, under Contract No. HHSN261200800001E. The content of this publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Health and Human Services, nor does mention of trade names, commercials products, or organizations imply endorsement by the United States government.


The ability to influence other people without having the authority to do so has become increasingly important for many reasons. “Subject Matter Experts” — those recognized by their peers as an authority on a particular topic —who have no formal, position-based power, have become more valuable in the workplace as they lead from the middle even if they are not necessarily supervisors or managers. 

Recent trends in organizational structures have seen an increase in partnerships, networks, and matrix management. Matrix management means that instead of having one manager, multiple managers serve critical roles directing activities and exerting influence. This organizational structure presents another reason to cultivate the ability to influence without authority.

There has also been a realization that professional relationships require more than knowledge to positively influence clients and colleagues. Relationships break down when there is a lack of sensitivity to differences in values and beliefs.  The ability to influence someone in the workforce diminishes when individuals have opposing values or beliefs and the potential influencer lacks authority.  It is important for potential influencers to recognize their personal social styles, leadership skills, and knowledge strengths so that they better understand how their customers view them.  

Influence and Authority

For this article, influencing is defined as:

“The ability to win others to one’s way of thinking, to be persuasive, to be able to change people’s minds without resentment, regardless of one’s position in the organization.”

Exerting influence and exercising authority are very different processes (Table 1). Authority is easily recognized, while influence is not; it is achieved by suggestions and support. A person may listen to a boss who will be doing his/her performance review; however, if the boss was no longer the boss, the person may dismiss the former boss’s ideas in the absence of formal authority. Authority is position-dependent, yet influence is relationship-dependent.

Authority represents role-derived power that can direct, control, and demand; it requires direct interaction. For this reason, authority is also difficult to maintain because it comes from an external source. 

Sources of Influence

There are many sources of influence, including: legitimate authority, contingent rewards/punishments, access to information, personal connections, subject matter expertise, and charisma (see Table 2).

Legitimate authority puts bosses in a position to influence employees due to organizational hierarchy.

Behaviors can be influenced based on the possibility of rewards and/or punishments.

Access to information, such as knowledge about what is going on in the organization or technical knowledge, supports an influential role for those who are willing to share the information they possess.  

Connections are another source of influence. Establishing good relationships as well as making connections with colleagues in your organization facilitates the ability to influence others as well as willingness to share those connections, once established. In the workplace, administrative staff members often exert this type of influence.

Subject matter experts and charismatic individuals are other sources of influence. A subject matter expert is someone who is recognized within the organization as an expert on a particular topic; this individual’s influence is a result of sharing his or her subject matter expertise with those who request it. Charisma is more difficult to characterize, yet may be defined as “compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.” Compelling attractiveness can translate into influence over others.

Clinical research professionals should consider which sources of influence they are most capable of exerting and which are most compelling to those who are being influenced.

Influencing Skills

Within cross-functional teams, there is a fine art to exerting influence, which includes building teams, understanding organizational politics, and persuading constructively. Effective influencers are usually opinion leaders who understand the issues being considered. They are trustworthy and often have cultivated many positive connections. Effective influencers use their knowledge and connections to help others.

Influence is built upon competence, clarity, and relationships (Table 3). Competence consists of credibility and composure. Relationships are built on likeability and reciprocity, while clarity is based on commitment.

Credibility and composure are critical success factors for competence. Credibility requires trustworthiness, expertise, passion, and sincerity. Achieving trustworthiness is difficult, and once achieved is fragile and easily diminished. Expertise includes knowing when to consult someone with more expertise. Passion, or positive energy that engages people, is also part of credibility. Sincerity means being genuine and authentic in what one is telling others. Finally, composure is a sense of self-possession and poise that inspires confidence.

Business relationships and personal interactions are closely intertwined. In order to influence people, it is necessary to get to know them and keep in touch with them. It is also necessary to build trust, which is done incrementally and remains fragile. Trust may take years to build, but can be shattered in a minute. It is not possible to antagonize a person and influence him or her at the same time.

Likability means having qualities that inspire others to like a person. There are more than 40 attributes of likability, none of which are related to appearance or someone’s job. Likability has to do with who the person is and requires self-awareness. People who are likable see themselves as others see them. Reciprocity, another element of relationships that influence, is mutual exchange or dependence, or the ability to give and take. Each person must offer something.

Clarity means being clear about what one wants, what one has to offer, and where the lines will be drawn in terms of what one is willing to do. It is important to have clear communication about what one wants and what one will or will not do. Communication must be in the style of the listener. The other aspect of clarity, commitment, involves dedication to a long-term course of action and maintaining relationships.

Different influencing skills work on different people. Some people are only influenced by competence and credibility, while others care more about commitment, clarity, and likability.


Currencies are an indication of what one person can offer another person (Table 4). Types of currencies are:

  • Inspiration
  • Task
  • Position
  • Relationship
  • Personal

Inspiration-related currencies are important to those who want to find meaning in what they are doing. These are people who want to do the right thing.  The opportunity to serve others is an example of an inspiration-related currency.

Task-related currencies are those associated with completing a current task or job, and they appeal to those who want to feel like they have accomplished something. Resources, such as personnel, supplies, money, or expertise, are often attractive to those who are motivated by task-related currencies.

People who are influenced by position-related currencies focus on recognition. They are influenced by visibility and like to be recognized for their contribution.  

Relationship-related currencies influence those who want to “belong” or be part of a larger group. These people want strong relationships with their team and their colleagues. Relationship-related currencies make people feel connected.

Personal currencies are based on relationships on an individual, one-to-one level. People who are influenced by personal currencies want to feel gratitude and empowerment. 

Influencing Styles

Push and pull are two types of influencing styles. The rationale for a push influencing style is that convincing, well-supported proposals will influence people (see Table 5). The success factors are the quality of the proposal, the information given, and the ability to ensure that others listen to those proposals. Push influence is achieved in a group format.

Push influence is most effective when the recipient of the influence has little experience or understanding of the issue, and recognizes the need for help or guidance. Push influence also works best when the recipient has no vested interest in maintaining the status quo, does not feel threatened by accepting the new proposal, and trusts the influencer’s motives.

Pull influence, which is usually used when push influence does not work, is based on the rationale that people are influenced more readily by proposals that are based on their needs, motives, aspirations, and concerns (see Table 6). Pull influence is achieved on a one-to-one basis.

Pull influence is most effective when the recipient of the influence has strong opinions and does not want to change.  The influencer must understand why the person does not want to change and be willing to address the person’s concerns. Pull influence also works best when the recipient has a vested interest in the status quo and the influencer does not know what the other person will find acceptable. The influencer should know the audience and build trust in order for pull influence to be successful.

Whether the influencer uses pull or push influence, clarity and relationship maintenance are required in influencing cross-functional groups. When influencing others, it is necessary to be clear about the goal, including the goal of each group member. It is also necessary for individuals to know what they will gain by agreeing to do what the influencer suggests and what their management thinks.

The influencer needs to know about each person’s competencies and areas of expertise. In order to exert influence, the influencer must respect each person and understand the existing relationships of group members. In understanding the relationships, listening and inquiry skills are crucial. The influencer must talk to each group member and keep everyone informed and updated. Organizational interests must always come first.

Teams are most effective when there are no assumptions and clarity reigns. Influencing teams, especially in a matrix organization, requires cohesiveness and merging of the vision, purpose, goals, objectives, roles, and responsibilities. By looking at team composition and celebrating those who can innately lead by influencing, it is evident that management, the team, and ultimately patients will benefit from an influence-based approach to problem solving.    

#              #              #


The Difference between Influence and Authority

  • Influence:
    • Achieved by supporting others and suggestions
    • Independent of position
    • Indirect and intangible
    • Difficult to detect
    • More easily maintained due to internal choice
  • Authority:
    • Achieved by control and command
    • Position driven
    • Direct interaction
    • Easily recognized
    • Difficult to maintain due to its external source


Sources of Influence

  • Legitimate authority
  • Rewards and punishments
  • Information
  • Connections
  • Expertise
  • Charisma


Influencing Skills

  • Competence:
    •  Credibility:
      • Trustworthiness
      • Expertise
      • Passion
      • Sincerity
    • Composure:
      • Sense of self-possession and poise
  • Relationships:
    • Likability:
      • Having qualities that inspire “liking”
    •  Reciprocity:
      • Mutual exchange or dependence
  • Clarity:
    • Commitment:
      • Dedication to a long-term course of action


Types of Influencing Currencies

  • Inspiration-related currencies:
    • People want to find meaning in what they are doing
    • People want to do the “right thing”
    • People want to contribute to valuable causes
    •  “Value” and “integrity”
  • Task-related currencies:
    • People relate to the task at hand and getting the job done
    • Usually resource driven: money, personnel, supplies, or expertise
  • Position-related currencies:
    • People focus on recognition, reputation, and visibility
    • People want to climb the organizational ladder
    • People want to be recognized for their contribution
  • Relationship-related currencies:
    • People want to belong
    • People want strong relationships with their team and colleagues
    • People want to feel connected to others
  •  Personal-related currencies:
    • People want to relate to others on the individual level
    • Gratitude
    • Empowerment
    • Make working with a person easy


Push Influencing Style

  • Rationale:
  • People are influenced by convincing, well-supported proposals
  • Success factors:
  • Quality of the proposals
  • Information given
  • Ability to get those proposals heard by shutting others out
  • Most effective when the recipient:
  • Has little experience or understanding of the issue and recognizes the need for help or guidance
    • Has no vested interest in the status quo and does not feel threatened by accepting the proposal
  • Recognizes the legitimacy of the influencer’s power base (e.g., expert, position, or physical)
  • Trusts the influencer’s motives


Pull Influencing Style

  •  Rationale:
    • People are influenced more readily by uncovering their needs, motives, aspirations, and concerns
  •  Success factors:
    • Quality of questions used to test understanding and seek information
    • Ability to build on ideas and proposals
  • Most effective when:
    • The recipient has:
      • Strong opinions and views
      • A vested interest in the status quo and could have difficulty in accepting the influencer’s proposals
    • It is unknown what the recipient will find acceptable
    • The influencer has no recognized power base or does not want to use an established power base
    • The influence attempt needs to have a long-lasting effect, such as obtaining more than compliance from the recipient
    • The relationship between the two parties is new or there is a history of mistrust
    • Previous attempts using a push style have failed

One thought on “Influencing Without Authority”

  1. Great Article. The information is very useful and applicable to the field of CRA’s. Thanks Barbara van der Schalie!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.