Influencing Upwards When You Have No Power

Written by Dr Steve Hutchinson, Founder of Hutchinson Training & Development

As a coach, many of my clients are people who have lots of responsibility but no real authority and are trying to influence their informal collaborative teams and colleagues to do things for the good of a project.  Their team members are often more senior, and are frequently professionally recalcitrant and have little desire to meet seemingly arbitrary goals or deadlines.  The question that this results in is essentially ‘how can I influence when I have no power?’.

Moreover, on my travels I typically encounter just two types of individual.  The first who will tell me that their life is difficult, and then spend the rest of the conversation saying “if only they / the boss / the team / the department would change…”.  The second grouping also have problems and issues – (don’t we all?) – but tend to suffix these issues with a self-imposed follow-on of “but this is what I am doing to improve things!”  Both groups have similar types of issues, but the first group are far more stressed, and also far harder to work with.

In short, regardless of position, some people exert influence and some don’t.  Did Martin Luther King have a badged position of authority?  Not really.  Did Ghandi?  Nope.  Does Malala Yousafzai?  Not at all.  You don’t need position and money to lead and change the world (although they undoubtedly help), you just need influence skills.

Think of your life as concentric circles, as in the diagram here. In the centre are things you can absolutely control.  Surrounding this are things you can influence.  Surrounding this are things that concern you but over which you have no control.  Nothing else matters.  The more you can expand your influence, the less should concern you.  This is what effective leaders do.  They use their positional power where appropriate and their personal influence all the time.  (Want to know the difference between positional power and personal influence?  Ask yourself whether you’d follow your PI or supervisor if they didn’t have a grant cheque.)

And the key thing here is that effective leaders hone and practice their influence skills constantly so that they can deploy them when it matters.

Think of the relationship you have with your boss. Then list out the factors in it that (little ol’) you can actually control.  Not many probably.  Now list the things that you’d like to change (concerns).  Now, think about what actions you, and no-one else, can take to influence the relationship.  Think about how much you CAN prepare, what you CAN find out about their motivations, agendas, preferences, communication style and what you CAN do to make everything in that relationship as productive and healthy as possible.  Yes, this requires effort but exerting influence in some areas of your life makes it easier to influence other areas too – as you start to act more confidently, and this in itself is influential.

Of course there are many influence tactics and many books on the topic (a few good ones are listed at the base of this article) but I believe that the three key influence primers are:

  • Act Confidently – Think about how the confident version of you would act (head up, sternum raised by an inch or two, good eye contact, open gestures etc) and influence from this position.


  • Lead by Example – Show the type of behaviours you want other people to exhibit. If you want your team to hit deadlines then you must first publicly show them that this is what you


  • Basic Human Decency – “Manners maketh man” and all that. ‘Pleases’, ‘thank you’s’ and a show of respect to the person you are trying to influence makes more of a difference than you’d think.  And not ‘thanks in advance’ at the base of an abrupt email.  If someone helps you then thank them for it – properly and (where appropriate) publically.  Basic Pavlovian conditioning suggests that their good behaviour will stick around if it’s reinforced.

Now, on top of these tenets, there are myriad tactics you can deploy.  In the 1960’s Marwell and Schmitt captured just some of these in a seminal paper concerning ‘compliance gaining behaviour’.   The original (cited below) or the quick and dirty internet guides to their work (such as ) make for interesting reading nearly sixty years later.  Some of the techniques they suggest seem close to manipulative, but they’re just tools.  It’s up to you how and when and whether to use them.

For me though, the things I pay attention to if I’m trying to influence someone are:

RESEARCH: What do I know about the person I am trying to influence?  The more I know, the more options I have.  Do they value logic or emotion?  When and where are the best times to catch them where they’ll be least distracted? Etc

WIIFT (What’s In It For Them?):  Why would they want to help me?  What advantages are there for them?  Get someone to want to do something and they’ll cheerfully do it all day.

VALUE: Show them that it’s important to you and that you value what they are doing.  This is the difference between sending an email and printing off the document you need them to approve and highlighting the key element of it.  If it seems important to you it’s much more likely to move up their to do list.

So, to end, we can’t really control people.  All the power and money in the world will only take you so far.  The real leaders are those that can influence and, to quote Dwight Eisenhower (US President) “get someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it”.

Learn more about influence with these resources:

  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie


  • Persuasion – the Art of Influencing People by James Borg


  • Start With Why – How great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek (His TED talk on this topic is also very interesting).

Cited Reference:

Marwell and Schmitt (1967) Marwell, G. & Schmitt, D.  Dimensions of compliance-gaining behaviour: an empirical analysis. Sociometry. 1967, 30, 350-364.

Dr. Steve Hutchinson was originally a biologist but is now an international freelance coach and development professional.  He co-wrote the Leadership in Action course and wrote and directs the Leadership Essentials I and IV courses for KCL.  His leadership coaching work takes him all over the world, and he’s written or edited several books.  

The Art of Recruitment

Written by Dr Ben Wilkinson, Interim Deputy Director & Senior Research Fellow, Policy Institute & Dr Kathy Barrett, University Lead for Research Staff Development, CRSD 

One of the key aspects of leadership – whether you’re in charge of a team, or helping to build it up – is recruitment. Recruiting the best people to work alongside you is essential. Not only for the good of your research group or research project, but also to make sure that your working environment is a happy one. After all, you will spend about a third of your life at work.

There a numerous rules of thumb, strategies and even companies devoted to getting recruitment right. Here are three useful rules of thumb:

  • Values, values, values:

Some organisations deliberately and overtly look at the values of potential recruits. The logic is simple: over time, people’s interests and ambitions can change, but their values rarely do. If someone’s values reflect those of an organisation or a bit of an organisation, they are likely to settle in more quickly, and contribute more effectively. This is why it’s a good idea to include values-based questions when recruiting new staff members. The NHS, for instance, overtly conducts “Values-Based Recruitment. Universities do this less overtly, perhaps understandably putting a premium on expertise and knowledge, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive and there’s no reason not to ask values-based questions when recruiting potential staff members.

  • You don’t need to recruit in your own image

Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, always said that you should try to recruit people smarter than you. He also acknowledged that that is really hard to do: we’re all human, and egos get in the way. Indeed, Schimidt thought that universities were on to something here. By using committees and peers, universities had found a way to improve recruitment.

Of course, there is a danger to this, and that is recruiting people who are like everyone else on the panel. They have similar skills, they have similar experience. But the difficulty is that if you recruit someone who has many of the same skills as you, you won’t have someone who has all the different skills you will need to get the project done, or to make your research group a success. There’s real power in diversity of skills – and its wise to use that.

  • Listen to your gut feeling but also be aware of unconscious bias

In the current enlightened days of recruitment we all try to follow processes and procedures that enable us to recruit from a diverse pool, the reason being that objectivity will result in better recruitment outcomes than relying on our subjective and often unconsciously biased perceptions.  It can be surprising how influential unconscious bias can be.  There is a wealth of research demonstrating how much this disadvantages people who are from minorities in recruitment and how much a leader can benefit if they welcome difference.  Occasionally though we meet someone at interview to whom we have an instinctive cautionary response.  As long as you are sure that your response has arisen from an appropriate source, it is worth paying attention to it as it can save many headaches down the line.

The gentle art of recruitment is essential to good leadership; getting the right people around you will make your research group or team more productive and happier.

Leading & Supervising Postgraduates

Written by Prof Maddy Parsons, Professor of Cell Biology, Randall Centre for Cell & Molecular Biophysics

I think one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of being an academic is having the opportunity to supervise and mentor postgraduate students (Masters and PhD) who are undertaking their projects in our team. In deciding to do a postgraduate degree programme, these students have already defined themselves as being committed to the field, interested in learning more about an in-depth subject area and developing new skills. This enthusiasm and genuine appetite for knowledge is essential in any research environment, and as such, students can have a really positive impact on the team as a whole if they are mentored properly. However, providing effective leadership to postgrad students can also present some significant challenges. In my 12 years as a group leader, I have supervised or co-supervised over 40 students and I suspect I’ve probably made all the mistakes you possibly can along the way! However, I think (hope!) I have also learned a few key things that might be helpful to consider:

  1. Good communication is essential. It might sound obvious, but establishing regular communication with new students is absolutely critical. Face-to-face is always best; I try really hard to make sure I have an allocated time to meet students every week and discuss progress and plans. Ad hoc or ‘open door’ policies tend not to work well, particularly if the student lacks the confidence to ask questions and discuss ideas spontaneously. This dedicated time is also important to develop mutual trust and respect that is essential to any student:supervisor relationship.
  2. One supervision style does not fit all. A senior colleague told me early on in my career that I should adopt one leadership style with students and stick to it. I realised very quickly that this was very bad advice! Everyone is different and you have to adapt to make sure they are getting the right level and type of support that works for them and for you. This can only be learned through good communication and developing an understanding of what each student needs in terms of leadership and mentorship.
  3. Micro-management kills innovation. All students need closer guidance when they first start, but after this it’s important that they take ownership and develop the project using their own ideas. This can be particularly tricky if you have pre-conceived ideas about where a project should go. Providing enough guidance and feedback to enable students to develop their critical thinking skills and pursue new avenues is essential.
  4. Encourage collaboration, open discussion and interactions. Postgraduate study can sometimes be a lonely business; it’s really important that students develop a network of peer support through regular interactions with other team members, other students within the department/College and externally through attendance at meetings and conferences. I really try to encourage these types of interactions as it has a huge positive impact on confidence and is an essential part of career development.
  5. Get excited! All research has its ups and downs; celebrating the successes with students (however small) and providing encouragement through the harder times is really important in maintaining confidence, momentum and commitment.

Building Resilient Leadership into Your Research

Written by Dr Jeremy Mead, Founder and Director of Resilient Leaders Elements Ltd and Director of Leadership in Action


Over the last 15 years our landscape has changed dramatically; social media and fake news have undermined people’s confidence in institutions and conventional hierarchy. Now more than ever great leadership is so important. But what is leadership?

Leaders are only leaders if they have followers. People follow authentic leaders who know their strengths and are candid about their weaknesses. Great leaders are dynamic, stepping forward at the right time and stepping back to allow others to lead when necessary. They also have vision and the ability to convey that vision in a compelling way.

Leadership is needed in all spheres of life, at all levels and in all parts of organisations. We all have the opportunity to exhibit leadership and it’s likely you will already have demonstrated it, whether in your day-to-day work as a researcher, on a sports field, in running a seminar series, or through involvement with a voluntary organisation. Whether or not you are currently in an ‘official’ leadership role, developing your leadership skills will make a significant contribution to your success in getting things done, forging collaborations and advancing your career.

Most researchers comment that demands on them are greater than they were a year ago. Work doesn’t get any easier and there are usually growing pressures from family, friends and other commitments.

That’s where Resilient Leadership comes in. A Resilient Leader knows where they are strong, their areas for development, what takes them from pressure to stress and how to rebalance. They have confidence in who they are and what they do, so that they create, build and take opportunities; bouncing back, knowing they will find a way through uncertainty, change and even crisis.

Over the last 20 years I have worked with people to first understand what makes a resilient leader and then use this understanding to help people build their resilient leadership. The Resilient Leaders Elements is a very practical framework which has been developed to help people develop their leadership:

Clarity of Direction and Resilient Decision Making address what people do as leaders. This is the cognitive intelligence that makes sure the best decisions are made in pursuit of well defined outcomes. Awareness and Leadership Presence address who people are as leaders. This is the emotional intelligence that has others want to follow you.

You will have noticed that Resilient Leaders pay equal attention to the cognitive and emotional aspects of leadership. It is very easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the smartest person should lead (particularly in academic circles). The truth is that anyone can lead and the best person needs to step forward for each situation and others need to encourage and support them to do so.

Develop your Resilient Leadership right now:

Here’s a short exercise to help you build your Resilient Leadership and which addresses the first part of our definition: “A Resilient Leader knows where they are strong, their areas for development…”

  1. Read the descriptions of each of the Elements
  2. Which is your strongest?
  3. Which needs the most development?
  4. What do you do well already in each of the Elements?
  5. What could you do better in each of the Elements?

Now find someone you trust and take them through the answers to these questions. Make sure you do more of the things you already do well and make a decision to address one development area through some simple actions.

We have developed an on-line resource called the Resilient Leaders Development Programme. This is used in King’s Leadership in Action programme to allow people to identify their strengths and development areas before the course and to measure the impact of the programme as a whole.

In the latest Leadership in Action programme it came as no surprise to find that typically participants had significant strengths in making robust, well researched decisions (Resilient Decision Making). They were authentic and worked in service of others (Leadership Presence). In contrast, development areas were mainly in the areas of Awareness and Clarity of Direction.

On average, participants grew their Resilient Leadership by over 20%, with around 30% growth in Awareness of Self and Others.

The programme consistently gives people confidence in their leadership such that they feel more prepared to step forward when required as well as the confidence to step back and let others lead when appropriate. This not only increases their own performance as researchers but also the effectiveness of their groups and collaborative partnerships in which they are involved. Ultimately, by making the most of each person’s capabilities better research gets done.

Focusing on building Resilient Leadership across an organisation such as King’s delivers the capability to create, build and take opportunities in our ever more uncertain world.