The Boss: How influential are you?

Mastering three imperatives is the way managers advance from being basically competent to fully effective. Readers will learn what those imperatives are and what they need to do to exhibit mastery of them – to go from good to great.

How effective are you as a boss – a manager and leader? If you had more influence, could you be more effective? Of course, you could.

A manager is someone responsible for the performance of others. That responsibility defines what a manager is. But what does a manager do to fulfill that responsibility? He or she exerts influence.

How effective you are as a manager and leader will depend on your ability to influence others in ways that make them more productive, both individually and as a group. To be a great boss, you must be able to shape, guide, channel, nudge, encourage, and, when necessary and appropriate, direct what others do. In short, you must be able to make a real difference in their behavior and in the thoughts and feelings that drive their actions. Indeed, if you’re unable or unwilling to influence others, you won’t be able to manage effectively at all.

Based on our research and teaching, our practical experience as managers, and the research and experience of others, we summarize a manager’s key levers of influence in what we call the 3 Imperatives:

  1. Manage yourself
  2. Manage your network
  3. Manage your team

Each imperative is built around a core idea and, taken together, all three encompass the key ways a manager exercises influence.

Manage yourself

First and foremost, your ability to influence others begins with you as a person. Who you are – what you think and feel, your values, standards, integrity, intentions, and the ways you choose to interact with others – all matter to those you’re trying to influence.

Every day, the people who work for you examine all you do and say to determine what you know, how you function as a person, and your goals and values. How much of themselves they’re willing to bring to their work – their commitment and willingness to go beyond minimal effort – will depend in large part on the competence and character they see in you.

Since management is largely a social activity, they pay particular attention to who you are in your relationships with others. It is in those relationship, again and again, that we’ve seen managers go astray by taking two dysfunctional approaches.

Many bosses try to base their relationships on the formal authority that comes with their title. At one time or another, we’ve all worked for the kind of boss who’s goal-driven and all business. No small talk, no personal interest in those around or under him. He strides the corridors head down, intent, unwilling even to acknowledge a passing underling. When he speaks, it’s mostly to ask questions and give directions based on his basic approach to being a boss, which can be summed up this way: “Do what I say because I’m in charge.”

The problem is that formal authority is not an effective way to influence others, especially over the long-run or when the work requires judgment and dedication. People resist, they find ways to avoid compliance, they do the least necessary, and they don’t apply their own judgment or knowledge. As one individual told us, “I fixed my boss – I did exactly what he told me to do.”

Other managers take the opposite approach. They try to influence others by forming warm, personal relationships – friendships – with those who work for them. Instead of saying “I’m the boss!” they say, “Do what I ask because I’m your friend.”

This approach produces a different set of problems because it encourages relationships in which maintaining the relationship becomes the primary goal, rather than accomplishing the work. In a real friendship, maintaining the ties between two people is the purpose. But that cannot be the case in a relationship between a boss and a direct report because, inevitably, the boss will have to choose – say, in selecting someone to promote – between doing what’s best for the organization and maintaining the personal relationship. In the end, trying to influence others through friendship and personal ties will leave people feeling betrayed. As a boss, you need to be close, warm, and caring with all who work for you, but it must always be clear that the relationship exists for, and is focused on, work and results.

If authority and friendship aren’t the best ways to influence others, what is?

The answer is trust. You must manage yourself in ways that foster trust in you as a manager. To do that, it’s helpful to think of trust as having two components: competence and character.

People are more likely and willing to trust you if they believe you know what to do and how to do it; that is, when they believe you’re competent. You needn’t be the expert, the source of all wisdom in your area, but you must understand the work, know how it’s actually done, and be able to make intelligent choices with regard to it.

Character focuses on your values, standards, goals, and what you truly care about. If competence is about knowing the right thing to do and being able to do it, then character is about wanting to do what’s right. Thus, while people’s belief in your competence is essential, it is not enough. They must also know and feel comfortable with your intentions – how and where you will apply your competence. In particular, they need to believe that you care about the work and them.

Trust is the foundation of all influence other than coercion. And so, you need to manage yourself and your relationships with others in ways that lead them to believe in your competence and character. Without a foundation of trust, your ability to influence others will be severely limited.

Manage your network

All managers make a basic choice. It arises from the interaction of three fundamental features shared by virtually all organizations: division of labor, interdependence, and scarce resources.

In every organization of any size, work must be segmented and people hired who have specialized knowledge of one part of the organization and its work. As a result, all organizations consist of disparate groups with often-conflicting needs, goals, and priorities. In spite of their differences, however, these groups depend on each other. No group can work in isolation. What makes this combination of differences and interdependence problematic is the third universal characteristic: limited resources. No group will get all the money, people, or attention it wants.

The unavoidable result is conflict and a politically charged environment in which conflict gets resolved according to one’s influence. Resources go to those leaders and groups with the most influence. Thus, to be effective, managers must be able to exercise influence throughout the organization on behalf of their groups.

Here is where managers make a choice. Some choose to deal with this political environment by trying to ignore it. They consider organizational “politics” a waste of time; it consists of schmoozing and backslapping and focuses on “who you know, not what you know.”

Managers who take this approach tend to think that making organizational decisions should be a matter of finding the “right” answer, which, once found, will be apparent to all. When the organization doesn’t work this way, they bemoan the influence of “office politics” and swear never to “play those games.” Consequently, they pull back, hunker down within their own units, and deal with others only when they find someone they like or when there’s a problem.

Effective managers, on the other hand, take a more informed and mature view of how organizations work. Much as they may dislike internal conflict, they know they cannot simply turn away or deal with colleagues only in an idealized world. They also realize it’s possible to manage in the charged world of internal politics with integrity and for good ends. Such interactions need not consist of manipulation and insincerity. People with different, competing needs and goals can work together to mutual advantage.

Thus, effective managers make a different choice. Without abandoning their personal standards, they turn toward the organization and engage their colleagues in the task of creating the conditions they and their groups need to succeed.

They do this by consciously and systematically identifying all those they need — and those who need them — to do their work. They reach out and, with discipline and initiative, build and sustain a broad network of ongoing collaborative relationships inside and outside their organizations. Thus, when issues or opportunities arise, they’re able to deal with them effectively by turning to existing relationships – a far more effective approach. This is how they are able to influence (and be influenced by) those over whom they have no formal authority.

Manage your team

How often do you meet as a group with those who work for you? If you manage a virtual group, how often do you come together online, and how often have you found ways – say, at conferences or company meetings – to meet face-to-face? When you do meet, do you deal with important work and group issues, or are the meetings perfunctory affairs at which individuals provide quick updates without much discussion?

Perhaps, like many managers we’ve known, you prefer to deal with group members one-on-one and act as the coordinator for the group. These managers often think that most meetings are a waste of time – some people do most of the talking or discussions fall into pointless arguments – that and nothing useful gets done.

There’s nothing magic about group meetings per se, but there is something special about a group of people who become a real team– as opposed to a group of people who merely work cooperatively. Managers often ignore the possibilities of managing their people as a whole. They don’t realize that they can influence individual behavior much more effectively through the team. because all of us are social creatures for whom belonging and acceptance are basic needs.

Why is a team different and better? A team is a collective whose members are committed to a common purpose, and work together to achieve challenging goals related to that purpose. In a real team, members hold themselves and each other jointly accountable. They share a genuine conviction that everyone will succeed or fail together. For work that requires a complex mix of varied skills, experience, and knowledge, teams are more creative and productive than groups of individuals who merely cooperate.

Managers of teams understand the power of those bonds. Instead of saying to team members individually, “Do it because I’m asking you to do it,” they create a setting in which people do what needs doing for the team, for their colleagues. This is what we mean by managing people through the team.

Given the advantages of a team versus a group, an effective manager is skilled at creating the conditions that make the people who work for them – whether on a project or permanently, formally or informally – into a real team. What does that require?

Above all, it requires a clear, compelling team purpose, along with concrete goals and plans based on that purpose. Without these, no group can hope to become a real team.

The right team infrastructure and culture are also critical. Members need to know their respective roles and responsibilities. They need to know how work gets done – the team’s work processes. And they need to understand the team’s values, norms, and standards. Finally, they need to know how members are expected to work together – what kind of conflict is acceptable and unacceptable, for example, or how they should communicate.

As the boss, you cannot simply put up a poster and declare your group a team. More is required because a team falls into place when the conditions – purpose, goals, and so on – are right. But while you can make sure that all those crucial conditions are in place, you cannot impose them. You can, however, focus attention on the need for these conditions, make proposals and suggestions, and have the team gather information and do analysis. You can expect the team to work with you on them. You can ask for agreement around them and coach the team through the process of developing these conditions. Then, once the purpose, goals, plans, work processes, and culture have been defined, you can expect and enforce  behavior based on them, remind team members of them, and, above all, exhibit them in your behaviour as the boss. In other words, as team leader, you uphold the team’s purpose, goals, processes, and values.

At the same time, effective managers know they cannot ignore individual team members. Each of us wants to be a valuable and valued team member and to receive individual recognition and attention. You can hardly do otherwise because skills, knowledge, and performance will always vary from person to person and must be managed according to each personality. An effective manager knows how to provide the individual attention members need, but they always provide it in the context of the team.

All three imperatives work together and each depends on the other. Each brought to bear by itself will be insufficient. Trust is basic to all of them – to forming productive individual relationships, creating and sustaining networks, and building a team. Everything you do as a boss begins with trust.

In the same way, everything you do also depends on a sense of purpose and the future you’re trying to create around that purpose. Without a purpose, goals, and a plan, you’ll find it difficult to generate trust – if people don’t know where you’re trying to go, how can they trust you? Without purpose, goals, and plans, developing a network of colleagues will be difficult as well. And without a strong network of colleagues throughout your organization, your team will struggle to carry out its plans and achieve its goals. Thus, a deficit in any imperative will diminish the others and limit your ability to influence others.

All three imperatives, taken together, encompass the crucial activities all effective bosses – leaders and managers – must perform to influence others. Mastering the imperatives is the way managers advance from basic competence to full effectiveness – from good to great.

About the Author

Kent Lineback spent many years as a manager and an executive in business and government. This article is based on their recently published book, Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming….Read Kent Lineback's full bio

About the Author

Linda A. Hill is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

About the Author

Linda A. Hill is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.