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.