Mar 21, 2021 - 9 minute read - leadership

Influence Without Authority

As you get more experience in being a software engineer, the trajectory that companies I have worked for look for you to be able to expand your scope. Something they will call out as a way to accomplish this is the term “influence without authority”, which is just a really fancy set of words that mean “persuasive”.

I’ve had good soft skills for a while, but if you asked me what exactly it was I was doing, I’d have had a hard time explaining what it was. Some time ago, I started thinking about what exactly it was I was doing, and have been digging into them ever since, and hope to write more frequently about how they apply in a business context. When I started thinking about influence without authority, and made the link to persuasion, my first thought was: how is persuasion distinct from manipulation - one is considered good; the other, bad. The best way I can think of to distinguish them is simply this: would the other person be pissed off at you for doing what you did? 

So without further ado, let’s get to several things you can do. Except for the first one, which applies broadly to the rest, they’re in no particular order.

Talk In Terms They Care About

When you need someone to do something for you, the most common mistake I see is talking to them in terms you care about. I see this mistake in recruiting emails a lot. They talk about why I’d be important to them. I have a reputation of being very good at what I do, I would be important to many companies that seek people who do what I do, so why would I care about your company? Many times they assume I even know what their company even does, when often, I’ve never heard of them before. If you’re Apple or Facebook, or other <household name here>, sure. But if you’re RabbleCo, don’t assume this. Give me a reason to see why your opportunity is an important opportunity to me. Part of the reason I’m at my current job is because the recruiter (hat tip to Barbara Lee!) read my LinkedIn profile, and in her original pitch to me, made it obvious that she paid attention to it, and pitched accordingly.

So when you need someone to help you out, you want to listen to them to understand what they think is important. If you’ve worked with them before, you probably have an idea of what they care about, or if you know what their team does, that helps too. What’s important to them will show up in the concerns they raise if they say no to you at first. If you ignore their concerns, you’re ignoring what they hold as important.

Another spelling of talking in terms they care about would be appealing to a common goal. You can call this aligned interests or any number of similar things. If the thing you need can help achieve some common goal - perhaps you both roll up to a common manager, and have some umbrella goal in common - this can be a win/win for both of you. If you’re on the same team, this is much easier to figure out.

Is There A Way To Minimize Their Effort?

Make an offer to pitch in on the work- perhaps rather than them writing the code, they can tell you what you need to do and you write the code instead with them reviewing it. This also has the nice side effect of them understanding you have skin in the game. Sometimes, requests will come off where they feel you’re doing this because you’re lazy or some such - not that it would be true, but human perception is a funny thing. Volunteering to have skin in the game communicates clearly that you’re not just looking for the easy way out. Just be prepared to make good on the offer.

A related anecdote I have is from when I used to smoke. If I would try to bum a smoke of rando stranger, I’d get mixed results. If I offered to buy it from them, they always said yes - and almost never took the money. Because I made the offer to have skin in the game.

This way also helps in cases where your teams have not been necessarily on the best of terms for whatever reason. I used this technique at one job where my team and an ops team had been butting heads frequently before I got there. I needed things from them, and while I could appeal to management to get it done (my boss explicitly offered the option as a break glass), I very intentionally didn’t, because it would come off (rightly) as a power play. That would only damage the relationship more. I’d get what I wanted, but at what cost to me in the future? By volunteering to chip in on the work, which I often had to make good on, they saw me more as a friend rather than an adversary.

Negotiating And IOUs

Think of this as the old “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”. If you work with the other person with any frequency, or have reason to believe that they’ll need something from you in the future, you can bargain. This is creating a “common goal” you can appeal to. This works best when you really didn’t have to do the thing they needed from you (or maybe on the expedited schedule they’re asking for), because then you are actually doing them a favor by doing what your side of the bargain would be. Sometimes, there’s nothing you can give them right now, and so you can owe them one. Just make sure that when they call in your chit, you make good on it, or you’ll wind up destroying your “credit”, and they won’t take the IOU next time.

The bad side of this would be to hold for ransom some work that you’d already agreed to, or work from you they’re entitled to. This usually would fit the shape of “if you don’t do X, I won’t do Y”. Those kinds of deals are not ok - they’re a power play. More specifically: the deal you want to strike truly helps both of you where neither of you would feel screwed afterwards.

Maybe They’re Already Inclined To Help You…

This is most common in cases where you have worked with the other person before and generally have a good working relationship. They’re inclined to help you, but the current set of priorities that they have to deal with don’t allow them to. Something you can suggest here is have them speak with their boss about possibly adjusting the priorities to allow for the work you need to get done. This is really indirect influence without authority where they influence (without authority) their boss to make the change. They can use the same techniques as are listed here to accomplish it. Or, if you ask and they’re ok with it, you could offer to speak to their boss.

Give As Generous Of A Time Line As You Can

If you need something from someone, give them as much time as you can. If they’re going to do it, they need to fit it in somewhere. Giving them more time gives them more freedom as to exactly when, and will be less disruptive for them. For me, people disrupting my short term plans used to irk me quite a lot, so giving more time seemed like an obvious way When people ask me for a deadline for a thing, I’ll often say something like “while sooner is better, I need it by X”. For whatever reason, framing it this way gives people more urgency than if I just say “I need it by X”. The ask hasn’t changed, but I’ve merely stated an obvious point. And I usually get the thing I ask for before X.

If the time frame is long, do follow up occasionally if you’ve not heard anything as people do forget. For example: if I give them a week for something that I expect to take an hour or two, I try to check in sometime during business day four (of the five days in a business week)- this way, they still have some time to juggle stuff around if they forgot. Exactly what the check in schedule should be depends on how long the task should take and how long of a time you gave them.

The main point here is to give them the ability to fit into their schedule in a way that suits them best, as opposed to if you don’t give them the time, it can wreck their schedule.


There are things that you can do that will work against you, either for the request you need now, or for requests you’ll have in the future.

Power plays are the way to make enemies quickly. You might get what you need this time, but next time and thereafter will probably go worse and worse for you.

Lying in any part of trying to persuade will erode the trust you need to make these kinds of deals work. A common one I’ve seen is false urgency where they say they need it by EOD, but the actual deadline is considerably longer.

The General Good Patterns

All of the above have a few base ideas that they stem from:

  • to seek the other person’s good
  • to allow them to retain their agency
  • for you to have skin in the game
  • truth
  • setting things up so that everyone will feel good about it, not just now, but later

If they feel you don’t have their best interest at heart, or if they feel you’re exploiting them, they won’t want to cooperate. If they feel you’re taking their ability to choose away by lying about the deadline, or going for the power play to force their hand, they won’t want to cooperate. 

Contrariwise, if they feel you have skin in the game, they’ll feel more like a teammate than adversary, that you’re not making the request of them lightly, but with consideration as they’ll have to bear some of the load. If you allow them to retain their agency, helping you will be something they chose, rather than forced on them, which will cause them to own the deliverable more. If you seek the other person’s good, they won’t feel exploited, but rather that you care about them.

Hopefully these tips will help you as you go about your business!

Hat tip to Jake Faris who recently asked me about influence without authority which caused me to think more deeply about the subject and what it was I was doing.