Whether you’re a software engineer, developer or project manager, you’ll likely end up having to guide and persuade a diverse group of stakeholders, peers, and business managers. That means the ability to influence people over whom you have no formal authority is vital to your career. “Always say ‘yes’ to an opportunity to head-up a project or lead a cross-functional team,” advised Jo Miller, a leadership coach and editor of BeLeaderly.com. “Because you must first establish yourself as a leader in order to be considered for the next level or a management role.” Here are the keys to shepherding and influencing people who don’t report to you:
Build a Base of Support
Once you decide to begin negotiating for something with other stakeholders throughout the company, immediately ask for your boss’s support. “Your boss has authority and influence, so you need him behind you,” Miller said. “He can leverage his relationships and network behind the scenes to remove obstacles and win support for your initiative.” Although it may seem counterintuitive, don’t immediately ask your contacts for whatever resources you need; it's important to take the time to get to know your teammates, as well as their objectives and work styles, before your first meeting. “Trying to influence someone you don’t have a connection to can be tough,” Miller said. “Friends will do stuff for friends, so don’t try to be a lone influencer, build relationships first.” Listening to people is one of the best ways to influence them, and you’ll need a wide network of collaborators to succeed. Understanding your teammates’ methods and preferences can also make communication a lot easier. Throughout your projects, make sure to periodically solicit input and foster a sense of shared mission.
What’s In It for Them?
You don’t need to play amateur psychologist or worry about your teammates’ hidden agendas or personality quirks; winning people over is very simple, according to Allan Cohen, professor of Management at Babson College and author of “Influence Without Authority,” a book devoted to organizational management: “Focus on what’s in it for them.” “Solve their problems first and they’ll reciprocate,” he said. “Remember, stakeholders aren’t interested in how a project benefits IT. They want to look good. Make it easy for them to say ‘yes’ to your requests by understanding their concerns and showing them how your ideas benefit them and the organization.”
Ask the Right Questions
Asking thought-provoking questions is a powerful way to influence people who don’t report to you. An impactful, intelligent probe can deliver a subtle message and help your team prioritize while giving you a peek at their private thoughts. For instance, you can’t impose deadlines or restrictions on people who don’t report to you. But you can ask:
- How should we be held accountable?
- What are the appropriate milestones?
- What should our top priorities be, given our timeline and budget?
“You’re not dictating when you ask questions about deadlines, but it’s also clear that you’re not going to let people skate,” Miller said. “Influential leaders use questions to get others to change or come around to their point of view.” Asking clarifying questions is also a highly effective technique for building consensus among diverse participants. If your teammates can’t seem to agree on a set of action steps, don’t hesitate to step in and fill the gap. “Every team needs a leader and it’s up to you to fill that gap when necessary,” Miller added. “If people can’t agree on what to do, make a proposal or assign action items.”
Keep Your Promises
Failing to keep your commitments or building support by over-promising is dangerous because it erodes trust and undermines relationships. “You’ve got to do what you say you’re going to do to be a successful leader,” Cohen said. “People are naturally suspicious of a grandiose promise because they think it’s a Trojan horse. Being honest and forthright shows respect for your teammates and yourself.”