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Book Summary: Influence without Authority by Allan R. Cohen and David L. Bradford

You may not be in a formal leadership position – but that does not mean you cannot have influence over others. Leadership is a mind-set and revealed in your behavior and actions, Allan R. Cohen and David L. Bradford explain in Influence without Authority. The authors outline five leadership practices you can follow to make a difference in any role or situation.

This excellent leadership guide by Allan R. Cohen and David L. Bradford offers a classic, necessary set of prescriptions for anyone working in a flat, team-based organization. That is to say, it is a guide that will prove useful to almost everybody employed at a contemporary organization. The waning of the old hierarchical organization, with its clear lines of authority and control-command management styles, puts a greater emphasis on your individual ability to achieve your goals by enlisting support from people who, often, have no obligation to provide it. We recommend this clear, jargon-free outline of the basic principles you need to know to influence others, even if you lack sufficient authority.

Book Summary: Influence without Authority by Allan R. Cohen and David L. Bradford


  • Influence depends on exchange.
  • To influence people, swap something they value for something you want.
  • Most people can exercise more influence than they do.
  • Relationships are the foundation of influence.
  • Treat those you seek to influence as potential allies and clients.
  • If you want influence, technical competence is the price of entry.
  • To be influential, appear to be exercising influence for the good of others, not for your own good.
  • Failures in influence are often rooted in personal failures or shortcomings. You can overcome most of these problems.
  • Basic external barriers to influencing others include individual differences, diverse goals and different standards for measuring success.
  • Basic internal barriers to influencing others include ignorance, fear and failure to frame your needs in terms of benefits for the other party.

The Influence Model

To work well in contemporary organizations, you need to be able to wield influence. The essence of leadership at any organizational level is to elicit cooperation, since even leaders with authority rarely have enough power to force people to cooperate. Cooperation is a two-way street, and influence is a kind of exchange. To achieve your objectives, you need collaborators. To enlist them, plan ahead so you can help those you seek to influence achieve their own objectives.

“Influence is about trades, exchanging something the other values in return for what you want.”

As you try to exercise influence, you may encounter internal and external barriers. There are internal barriers to influence, which are usually more difficult, obstinate blockages than the external barriers are.

They include:

  • Ignorance of the nature of influence: which is, fundamentally, that both parties give and take – in fact, you must give in order to take.
  • Destructive attitudes that prevent you from recognizing the truth, especially about yourself and those you seek to influence.
  • Fear of what the other party might say or do.
  • Failure to explain to others how they could benefit from helping you.

“When you need something from someone who has no formal obligation to cooperate, begin by assessing whether you could form an alliance by discovering where there might be overlapping interests.”

Critical external barriers to influence include:

  • A power gap between you and those you seek to influence. If the gap is too wide, you may have nothing they value. That would make you unable to swap with them.
  • Divergent objectives and priorities between you and those you seek to influence. You share no common ground and, thus, no common currency.
  • Success metrics and incentives that reward others for avoiding what you want.
  • Rivalries that lead people you might otherwise influence to see you as an antagonist or as an enemy with whom they cannot negotiate.

“Failure to think in a positive way about people who are difficult to influence is perhaps the deadliest of self-created traps.”

To gain influence, follow this six-step model:

  1. Consider everyone as a potential friend and ally.
  2. Clearly identify and define your objectives and priorities.
  3. See the world through the eye of those you seek to influence.
  4. Find out what other people value, and what you can offer in exchange. Know also precisely what you value and will accept.
  5. Understand your relationship with those you want to influence, and understand what kind of relationship they want.
  6. Exercise influence through a process of mutual exchange and mutual benefit.

The Currencies of Influence

Influence is a form of exchange, so you must identify the currencies – the valuable resources – you can swap for cooperation from others.

“The trick to unhooking yourself from your negative views is to assume that the potential ally thinks his or her behavior is reasonable, and your job is to understand that reasonable person’s rationale, so that you can pursue a win-win resolution.”

These currencies fall into five broad categories:

  1. Inspiration – These currencies give work meaning. They include a stirring vision of the future, a chance to do great work or the prospect of taking the ethical high road.
  2. Task – These currencies make someone’s work better, more efficient or more satisfactory. They could include an opportunity to get additional resources, a challenge that makes a job more interesting or an opportunity to get more support.
  3. Position – These currencies give a person more status. They include visibility, glory, credit, reputation, broader contacts or a sense of being an important insider.
  4. Relationship – These currencies are based on personal relationships, such as making someone feel accepted or understood.
  5. Personal – These currencies address a person’s sense of self and include gratefulness, a sense of ownership, self-esteem, and even peace and quiet.

“Everybody’s behavior is reasonable from his or her point of view.”

As well as these positive currencies, you can also use two types of negative currency. If someone fails to cooperate, you can restrict or block their incoming valuable currencies. Or, you can send bad or undesirable currencies their way, such as a chewing out, a bad report to the boss or a rumor that the person is unhelpful. Valuation is one of the most challenging aspects of using currencies of influence. No currency is universal and depends on how the person you want to influence values it. Do not put too low a value on what you offer.

Seeing the World through Another Person’s Eyes

To get a good idea of what your prospective allies value, examine:

Their jobs – Do they hold number crunching jobs, people jobs, monotonous jobs, varied jobs, jobs that reward innovation or jobs that demand conformity?

  • Their environmental context – Do they deal with customers, cost controllers, production people or external constituencies?
  • Their risks and uncertainties – Can you cement an alliance by helping them reduce their risk or uncertainty?
  • Culture – Different groups may have distinct cultures even inside a single company. That is, compare marketing’s culture with the culture of the regulatory compliance unit or the accounting department.
  • Career plans and objectives – Pay attention to where your allies hope to go, and to where they have been. Someone with a corporate background may see the world quite differently than someone with an academic or entrepreneurial background.
  • Problems – Understand what keeps your prospective allies awake at night. Competition? Financial uncertainty? Do you have currency that could address their problems?

“The goal is not to make everybody best friends.”

As you glean an understanding of your potential allies’ contacts, background, education and so on, beware of naïve stereotypes. For instance, not all accountants are risk-averse.

What You Have to Offer

You probably have more currencies to spend than you realize. But to count your currencies, you must first clearly understand your position in the world around you. First, be clear about your major goals. Do you have personal wishes that might prevent you from achieving influence? Be flexible, so you can modify your expectations if necessary. When you’re pursuing an important objective, it is very easy to develop tunnel vision.

“To achieve all the power of which you are capable, you need to understand yourself as well as your potential ally.”

Your influence doesn’t apply only to those at or below your level. To develop a good working partnership, also try to influence your boss and superiors. In fact, whether you have a good or bad boss may be largely up to you. After all, you know better than the boss how well they are managing you. To improve your boss, share information you have that they lack. If they are overworked or overwhelmed, provide moral, personal and political support. Influencing your boss requires tact, but you can use the same influence model that works with your peers. That is, understand the boss’s world as they see it, so you can recognize what currency they value. Then, you will know how to negotiate a diplomatic exchange.

Relationship Building

Influence requires good relationships, which depend on – and foster – communication and cooperation. Poor relationships make influence and collaboration all but impossible. To build good relationships, you may need to adapt your work style to match the style of the people you want to influence. There is no single, invariably correct work style. Know your style, and know the preferred style of the people you seek to influence.

“Sometimes, people with an exciting idea and high commitment become more single-minded than is necessary.”

Sometimes, you may want to influence someone whose relationship with you is already marred by suspicion, hostility and enmity. First, examine yourself to see if the problem is your fault. If you have done something wrong, correct it. Recognize that behavior that seems very reasonable to you may appear very wrong to other people. See yourself through their eyes. Then, examine their organizational context to see why they may have acted in a manner you found offensive or difficult. When you understand the causes of behavior, you may be able to replace your indignation with sympathy and patience.

“Some bosses are too uncomfortable to ever directly discuss their relationship with their subordinates, but there are ways to sneak up on a discussion that have a better chance of working.”

Focus on the job. Relationship issues may remain even after you examine yourself and understand your prospective allies’ context. If so, put your personal feelings aside and get to work on the job at hand. Sometimes focusing on the details of work can eclipse relationship problems, and even help improve or resolve outstanding issues. Working together may one day open a door for talking openly about problems in the relationship.

Trading Strategies

The influence model uses four basic trading strategies:

  1. Straight swap – This works when each party has something the other party values, if the values are about equal and the relationships are pretty sound.
  2. Conversion – Explain to prospective allies how cooperating with you will benefit them.
  3. Discovery – Explain value that might have been hidden. For example, demonstrate how a new technology achieves savings or increases revenues.
  4. Cost compensation – If you want your prospective ally to do something that carries a cost the ally must bear, offer to defray it in a currency that your ally values more. For example, an employee may need the flexibility to arrive late some mornings. And, a boss may want the employee to be willing to stay late some evenings to finish important work. The employee may be able to negotiate an exchange: flexibility in arrival time in exchange for a commitment to stay late when needed.

“The saving grace in organizational life, is that anyone who does it only for selfish ends will sooner or later be seen as more interested in advancing personal goals than at helping the organization accomplish its goals, and will lose credibility and clout.”

The currencies of influence have a time dimension, just as other currencies do. You may:

  1. Pay immediately – This is the simplest, most straightforward approach.
  2. Draw down from the favor bank – Build a credit in the influence bank by doing favors and accumulating favor debts that allow you to draw down later. Different people value different currencies, but if you are thoughtful and consistently helpful you will accumulate a sizable balance. Beware, however, of seeming self-interested when you make your deposits in the favor bank. If you are too obviously doing favors in order to put people in your debt, you will create ill will.
  3. Buy now, pay later – Strike an agreement that the other party will do a favor for you now and you will reciprocate in the future. This will hinge on your credibility.

“The chance to work at tasks that provide a challenge or stretch is one of the most widely valued currencies in modern organizational life.”

Sticky problems arise with time-deferred exchanges. Sometimes colleagues may not even recognize that you have made a deposit in their favor account, or may not be willing to admit that they have a debt to you. Sometimes, people undervalue favors that cost you a great deal of time and effort. In such cases, adapt your responses to the prospective ally’s worldview and the organization’s culture.

“Don’t let one failure lead you to give up. History can be overcome; it just takes repeated efforts.”

Potential pitfalls in influence trading strategies include:

  • Failure to plan ahead and understand clearly what the other party really values.
  • Attachment to your opinions, even in the face of changing facts.
  • Attempts to bluff those whose power far outweighs your own.
  • Timidity stops you using your influence currencies, because you fear anger or hostility.
  • Going too far to win a trade while forgetting that you may have to deal with this person again, in the future.

The influence model is almost universally applicable. The consistent key to influence is to understand the position and worldview of the person you seek to influence, and to develop a strategy that responds to that person’s values and needs. Influence applies not only on a person-to-person basis, but also on a group-to-group basis. Always understand the context of those you seek to influence. Gather the facts and be alert when they shift. Recognize that in extremely difficult circumstances, you may be forced to use – or to threaten to use – negative currencies, that is, to punish noncooperation. Be willing to use negative currencies when you must; however, begin small and escalate slowly.

About the author

Allan R. Cohen is a distinguished professor of global leadership and Director of Corporate Entrepreneurship at Babson College. David L. Bradford is a senior lecturer on organizational behavior at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and Director of Stanford’s Executive Program in Leadership. They are the co-authors of Managing for Excellence and Power Up.

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