Influence Without Authority

I joined the Café Scientifique program last year as an adult leader for Los Alamos, and needed a plan for leading a group of teens, to influence without authority. From what I remember about my high school years, there were clubs that I enjoyed participating in and those that I dreaded; there were those adults I eagerly worked with and those that made me suddenly (uncharacteristically) rebellious. I wanted to increase my chances of winning over the teens early on.

When I had a chance during the summer to meet with other adult leaders around New Mexico, I sought advice. What worked and what didn’t work with their leadership teams? The adult leader of Taos’ Café, Louis Jeantete, described in detail his thought process for how she ran meetings and her expectations. One paragraph resonated with me:

If you do it right and hold true to your word you only need to gain trust once. Early on I repeated that the program was theirs to build and backed it up with action, or inaction as was sometimes the case. I reinforced that it was the leaders’ responsibility to organize themselves and that I would do everything I could to get them the resources to build the program unique to their preferences.

Equipped with this perspective, our first meeting in Los Alamos began with a discussion about what the Youth Leaders envisioned. I stated clearly and repeatedly that the Café is theirs, not mine; that my job is to support them to carry out their vision and make this Café their own. This is how we began the year; this is the tone that was set from the beginning.


Even still, I had a hard time breaking down some of the societal formalities of teen-adult relationships. The teens still relied on me to kick off the meetings and looked to me for a final say in decisions and in the exchange of ideas. And on the reverse side, although I had every intention for the teens to take charge, I had a difficult time stepping back, not stating my own perspectives at each discussion and not telling the teens what I thought they needed to do to make the Café successful. When I brought up these struggles in a recent TSCN meeting, it was clear that I am not alone.

A workshop that I once attended came to mind: Influence Without Authority. Although the premise of that workshop was very different—influence in a corporate workplace—the underlying theme was the same. In my case, it wasn’t that I did not have authority over the teens as much as I did not want authority.

The article, ‘The Influence Model: Using Reciprocity and Exchange to Get What You Need,” is jam-packed with information. Six steps to influencing without authority are nicely summarized on this webpage

First step: Assume that everyone can help you. The teens have asked to be on the team; they really are allies.

Second step: Prioritize objectives. The way I see it, my primary objective is for the teens to take ownership, responsibility, and pride in their role for the Los Alamos Café and understand how that role fits into the larger network. Secondary goals, then, are to get the teens to carry out their specific jobs and to actively participate.

Third step: Understand the other person’s situation. This focuses on understanding what is important to the person, what are the expectations and responsibilities for that person, etc. Understanding the situation helps identify things that are meaningful to that person, which can be used in step six.

Fourth step: Identify what matters to you and to them. This step ensures that the adult leader only chooses battles that influence the overarching goals. It also illuminates the fact that the teens do actually want something from the adult leader. (Not completely obvious sometimes.) For some, it might be a sense of accomplishment and praise; for others, it could be a recommendation letter down the road.

Fifth step: Analyze the relationship. What is the working relationship with that teen; what are the weak points that need work; what strategies might work to influence the person, given your relationship.

Sixth step: Exchange “currencies.” Currencies may take the form of praise, gratitude, public acknowledgement, confidence in the teen-adult or teen-teen relationship, etc.

Eager to implement this model, I have spent time thinking about the six steps and how it pertains to each individual teen and to the group as a whole. Even this initial process has forced me to think about the teens in a different way, to think about how I could be more effective as an adult leader and could change the dynamics to truly allow the teens to take charge confidently and enthusiastically. It will take time and work to fully put the model into practice, but then again it takes time and work to build any good relationship.