A myth called Influencing with Authority

It is been said that “influencing without formal authority” is the most difficult task to do. This comes from the old school thinking that individuals can be influenced by a person who has formal authority over him or her. For example, if a team member (say X) immediate supervisor (say Y) is considered to be a person who has higher authority mainly because Y does X ‘s performance assessment, career growth, opportunity spotting etc.  Since Y is perceived as a “power-center”, it is assumed that Y will be able to influence X better by using tighter control. On the other hand, if an individual is not having the direct formal authority (say Z), influencing becomes a challenging task.

Cut to reality! I got first taste of this whole paradigm when I took over a program management role quite some time back. As a program manager, I was supposed to get a program delivered with multiple features, developed/tested by different team member from different project teams. Individual project teams had formal reporting structure with individual project mangers, who used to lend resources on  a per program basis. In simple term, this is what is popularly known as ‘matrix organization’ where formal reporting and business reporting act as a perpendicular items to each other. Definitely it was a challenging ask to get things done as a program manager without control of individuals. However over a period of time, I was able to build on it by developing stronger listening skills, communication, big picture creation, creating an environment of abundance etc, because of which the program execution became smooth.

At the same time I started observing where people started opening up with big time, by sharing some of their deeper concerns. They were telling me about individual career plans, career aspirations, concerns that are coming from various sources etc. Without even me asking for it information used to reach me, because of which I was able to build even stronger influence on people. On the contrary individual people managers who had formal authority were never aware of these items as information never reached them. In summary I was able to influence more without formal authority mainly because people were more open to me, which gave me tremendous opportunity for me to get people influenced.

On contrary, when I wore people management hat I ended up seeing the other side of the story where folks with lesser authority than me started having more influence on my people. Lesser the authority, more the openness thereby increasing the possibility of influencing. Performance appraisal is no longer the key for influencing individuals.

Confidence vs Arrogance

Recently I was in conversation with one (relatively younger) colleague (say named A), who is at peak of his career. He is been handling plum assignments, Work activities matching to his strengths, Strong backup from senior leadership for his assignments, Very high visibility with customers – a great combination anybody can ask for. Definitely his hardworking ability and capability matched with this opportunity which has made him a star performer over years. Everybody (including myself) have seen such phase of career, during which individuals demonstrate lot of confidence, positivism and energy. However during the conversation, I found A slowly crossing limit and started behaving in a arrogant manner. He quickly gets into ‘godfather’ mode and start providing unsolicited advice as if he knows everything under the earth. Frankly I didn’t expect this from him. As a higher performing individual, I always thought he is a mature individual, who still has a long way to go in his career. Success (that too when it comes in abundance), starting affecting his behavior now. By looking more closely, he always been an individual contributor working on plum assignments with heavy duty back-up. Any change/issue, he is given necessary power to get it escalated because of which he always got his things done in his own way.

Similarly, some years back I have seen another individual who was in pinnacle of his career (say named B). You name any award he already got it. In fact there were some special award categories were created in order to acknowledge his contributions and results. This individual has organically grown his group from the scratch, because of which he enjoyed enormous amount of ‘organizational currency’ in terms of higher reputation with customers, better command over customer dynamics, deeper understanding of people etc. Faced by same behavioral he ended up rubbing shoulders against individuals, picked up fight with peers and demonstrated as if there is no tomorrow. However due to certain business situation, organizational structure got changed and he was rotated into a different role where he was put into a total new situation in a new business with new team.

As B always grown things organically, it was like ‘fish-out-of-water’ feeling to take up something in between and struggled to gain grounds. As his behavioral issues (like arrogance) has multiplied over years it became impossible for him to adapt to the new situation and demonstrate leadership. Slowly-and-steadily he lost his credibility and became ineffective in the organization. Another job rotation followed, which has made B’s life even miserable. Even today it is very hard for B to come in terms current situation (caused because of multiple changes). Since he has not faced the situation in the past, one small change has literally blown away his career. I am now wondering if the similar situation comes for A, how will he come out? What if he is asked to lead a set of people whom don’t know at all? How well he will be able to manage change? How effectively will he be able to keep his ego under check? How well he will adapt to new situation and perform? How effectively he will be able to handle ‘out-of-limelight’ situation for which he has not used to?

Often there is very thin line between confidence and arrogance, which makes whole lot of difference. Unless individuals are able to manage it well, individuals and their career soon becomes history.

Leadership dichotomy: Compassionate Vs. Ruthless

Let us start with two case studies.

Case-1: Consider a situation where one of your top performing members (person A) in the team is going thru a serious personal problem. The problem could come in many forms (love/affair failure, wife pregnancy complications, parents/kid having serious illness, perennial conflicts at home etc.) which make the individual disturbed because of which his focus on work might come down, due to which his intermediate deliverable may not be up to the mark. However he has earned his credibility in the team by consistently delivering on the expectations.

Case-2: Consider a situation where another member (person B) in the team, is not delivering on his business commitments where results are way below the expectations due to lack of ownership. Every other time, he comes up with some or other excuse for not doing the work, where proper effort is not spent let alone the results. However this individual has necessary capability to complete the work.

As a leader of the group, you end up facing cases mentioned above very frequently, which needs to be handled totally differently. With person A you need to be in ‘compassionate’ mode by understanding humane aspect of an individual by understanding personal issues/challenges faced. By considering the past record of this individual he needs to be given certain flexibility to sort of the personal problems. As a leader you can also offer solution or suggestion for him to come out of personal problem. But in simple terms, the leader has to take the ‘high on people, low on business’ approach by taking humane view into perspective.

In case of person B, you need to pass on a clear message with sharp feedback for not delivering on his commitment. If the situation prevails you need to quickly switch into ‘ruthless’ mode  by taking some strict action (ex: providing a performance improvement plan) or ask him to leave the organization if the situation worsens. When individuals are not delivering consistently, resulting in lower performance it should be treated very strictly. But in simple terms the leader has to take the ‘high business, low people’ approach by taking the business perspective into consideration. After-all organization and people are here to get things done and deliver on business commitments.

But the real challenge comes when you as a leader face multiple cases where you need to switch between ‘compassionate’ and ‘ruthless’ mode. Sometimes the mode switching has to happen in back-to-back meetings with hardly few minutes interval in between them. Based on my experience, the success of the leader depends on how seamlessly the leader is able to handle switching between these two modes, which is not an easy task at all. Also when it is not executed properly it may create disaster situations. For example, being ‘ruthless’ to the person A will create a ‘Hitler’ image of the leader to the individual (and eventually to the team) where the individual might feel his human aspects are not taken care. Also being ‘compassionate’ to person B will result in him enjoying paid vacation as a part of his job!

It really takes a lot on the leader to read the situations day-in-day-out and take decisions accordingly. Given the fact that leaders also human beings that have emotions, it is likely possible that leaders fail to switch between modes, which is normally known as ‘getting carried away’ by the situation. Achieving right balance between people and business is always challenging, which also makes leadership an ever evolving and ever learning journey as far as individuals are concerned. After all when it comes to leadership nobody can say ‘I am done’.

Performance management – Differentiation

Recently my supervisor has started an initiative, where each one of us started sharing details on a particular topic, taking reference from a famous leadership/management book. Based on my recent study, I have come up with a presentation on ‘Differentiation’  by Jack Welch. Have a look at it and let me know what you think.

Performance management – How to give effective feedback?

Providing effective feedback for others is one of the key elements in performance management. It is possibly the best way to help others grow in their careers. Based on my experience I have come up with a presentation which talks about top 5 things to take care when giving feedback:

  1. Devil is in the details
  2. How providing examples is key?
  3. Negative feedback is not bad
  4. Subjective vs Objective
  5. Give recommendations

Let me know you ‘feedback’ for this presentation on ‘feedback’ 🙂


Performance management – Beyond ratings & rankings

The topic on performance management (popularly known as performance appraisal) is one of the least understood and complex topics in management. Especially in Indian context, often it is linked with annual/bi-annual salary raises/promotions. At an outset it might look like a mundane ceremony done for name-sake,where favoritism (or impression with direct reporting manager) plays a major role. But the real spirit of performance management and the idea behind it goes much deeper than that.

When I started doing performance management in my team, I understood the awareness among members is much less. In order to improve that and build better mutual understanding, came up with some material which is shared below with some modifications. Going forward, I will be sharing a series of presentations under this topic. While there might be minor modifications among organizations in operational aspects, the core message remains the same.