Leading Without Authority: How to motivate people who don’t have to do what you say.


By Dan Sundberg, PhD

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Ever worked with a colleague or boss and struggled to get them to do something that needed to be done? In many situations we have the benefit of controlling a wide range of consequences and the authority that allows us to encourage the needed behavior. A boss has authority over a subordinate, a parent over their child, a teacher over their student. Indeed, Stanley Milgram showed us the sometimes frightening power that authority can give us (Milgram, 1963). Yet, in many other situations, from working with your boss, coworker, review board member, or another parent in the PTA, we find ourselves with no authority, and control over few effective consequences. This means we have to rely on other means to get people to perform in the way that will get the job done.

So how do you lead without authority and create the behavior that you need in others? The answer is simple – using the same principles and techniques that you would with any other behavior!

Indeed, when many behavior analysts work with a new client (whether they be an individual with developmental disabilities, or a corporate executive), they often start in a situation with low authority, and need to earn trust, attention, and compliance.

So what does that look like in a peer-to-peer situation?

One behavior analyst was tasked with developing and implementing behavior plans for children in a school special education program. To succeed, he desperately needed the cooperation of the classroom teachers. Unfortunately, he was put into a politically sensitive situation; the teachers had agreed to his presence in the classroom, but the administration had backed off on giving him any formal authority. This meant that the teachers really didn’t have to do anything in the behavior plans that he had written. 

Fortunately, he was a skilled behavior analyst, and knew just how to apply the science in a situation like this. He started out by chatting with the teachers about whatever they wanted to talk about. He was a good listener, providing lots of eye contact, laughing at the right times, asking questions and showing genuine interest. During these conversations he found out that many of the teachers had a serious sweet tooth – what he saw as an opportunity to do some pairing. So he started coming in every day with a plate of home baked cookies, which the teachers loved. He did some more listening and learned about some behavior problems the teachers were dealing with, unrelated to his job. He worked hard to provide some simple suggestions that wound up helping.

By the time he had finished his assessments and developed his behavior plans, the teachers loved him. When he needed their help implementing his programs, he started small and provided a ton of reinforcement for their cooperation. Soon enough he was able to get his behavior plans in place, and most all of the teachers on board with him.

Notice there was no need for formal authority in this situation, only good use of behavioral principles. And indeed, many of the best approaches for effectively leading the people you work with are the same ones that behavior analysts use with their clients.

Here are some key things to consider in getting people to work with you:

Spend time establishing yourself as a reinforcer. Talk about what they want to talk about in casual conversation, find something to compliment them on, see if there are any small problems you can solve for them, and if all else fails bring them cookies. Read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People for tons of great specific suggestions on becoming a conditioned reinforcer (Carnegie, 1981).

Treat it as an opportunity for shaping. Any small approximation towards your desired behavior you should reinforce heavily, even if it starts a long way from the behavior you want.

Make your initial task demands small and response effort low. A friend was interested in getting his remote colleagues to check in regularly with e-mail communication on their projects. Rather than asking for detailed reports every day he started out by simply asking them “how are things going?” This prompted responding, which he reinforced heavily, and eventually led him to getting the daily reports he desired. Think of this like a high probability instructional sequence (Mace et al., 1988), but remember the importance of providing reinforcement after the completion of each task demand (Zuluaga & Normand, 2008).

Think about the timing of your requests to capitalize on motivating operations. Are you asking someone to do something when there are already heavy task demands on them? Is the person looking to impress his or her boss by getting involved in another project (i.e. yours)? Consider how these variables will change the reinforcing/punishing effectiveness of your demands.

If you are able to apply just a couple of these suggestions you will find that you don’t need formal authority to influence the behavior of others – just good old fashioned behavior analysis.

Do you agree with Dr. Sundberg’s suggestions?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Carnegie, D. (1981). How to win friends and influence people. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.

Mace, F. C., Hock, M. L., Lalli, J. S., West, B. J., Belfiore, P., Pinter, E., & Brown, D. K. (1988). Behavioral momentum in the treatment of noncompliance. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 21(2), 123–141.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 67(4), 371–378. http://doi.org/10.1037/h0040525

Zuluaga, C. A., & Normand, M. P. (2008). An evaluation of the high-probability instruction sequence with and without programmed reinforcement for compliance with high-probability instructions. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 41(3), 453–457. http://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.2008.41-453

Dan SundbergDaniel B. Sundberg, PhD, is a behavior analyst dedicated to creating meaningful change for individuals and organizations using the science of human behavior. Dan has worked in a variety of organizations, including non-profits. Additionally, Dan spent two years as a university lecturer, teaching undergraduate students how to improve the workplace with behavior analysis

Dan earned his B.A. in Psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, M.S. in Organizational Behavior Management from Florida Institute of Technology, and Ph. D. in Industrial/ Organizational Behavior Management from Western Michigan University. During this time, some of the best thinkers in behavior analysis and OBM mentored Dr. Sundberg as an academician and business professional.

Dan is currently Regional Manager of Consulting Services at ABA Technologies, where he helps to develop and deliver OBM consulting services. Dan is also a guest reviewer for the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and in his spare time he creates behavior-based products that allow people to manage their time and accomplish their goals. He also has a special interest in building effective work practices and cultures for start-up companies, and increasing the positive effects of organizations working towards an environmentally sustainable future.

1 Comment on "Leading Without Authority: How to motivate people who don’t have to do what you say."

  1. Reading through this, I came to realize that I too use this approach and while it can take a wee bit of time to gain the trust of the people, once you have it – mountains can be moved and cooperation isn’t even a concern. Great article.

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