How to Avoid Exercising Your Formal Authority

A coffee cup that says world's best boss sitting on a desk next to a computer keyboard

What is Formal Authority?

Formal Authority is the authority provided by an organization or the law to an individual enabling them to carry out certain actions in accordance with their own will without the need to consult others. Put simply, you have to do it because I'm the boss. The power this leader has is derived directly and oftentimes solely, from their title.

Unfortunately many new leaders exercise this type of authority frequently and without thought to the consequences. If you want to be a great leader however, you would be wise to exercise this type of authority as little as possible. If you have to rely on your title to get things done then you have a huge problem on your hands.

Most people don't like being told what to do. Even those that do, usually just like the formal structure, not so much the directive that they must do certain work.

Taking a different approach to leadership

If you want to be a successful leader, you must begin building trust and a brand around what type of leader you are. The formal authority you possess only carries you so far. From the moment you become the leader, you will be judged. That might not sound fair but it is the reality you will be faced with.

Those around you will analyze, scrutinize and talk about your work and every word, action and decision you make. You can either use this to your advantage or let it destroy your leadership career quickly. If you have a high level of informal authority because you have built great relationships with your people; then you will find the management of your people much easier.

As a leader, you are always on center stage

There are several easy steps you can start from day one to grow your leadership brand and build trust and authority with your people. Doing the following steps and doing them consistently with genuine interest and positive intent will allow you to maximize the times you are in the "spotlight" on center stage.

Learn the names of your people

This might seem extremely obvious but you absolutely cannot underestimate the power of this first step and yes, it needs to be step 1. According to a 2006 study from the Institute for the Study of Child Development, hearing our name activates our brains so it can essentially tell itself, "hey, pay attention, this is important."

When you address your people by name, it builds a tiny little invisible bridge between you and that person and gets their attention much more than just talking to them without using their name. This is the easiest way to increase your informal authority with your employees or people.

Have a face to face conversation with everyone you work with

In the age of digital communication, a real life, 1 on 1 conversation with your people can pay huge dividends. When you have these conversations, you have a mission, to work at learning one unique fact about each person that they care about deeply. Do your best to keep these informal conversations, especially at work. The informal nature of the conversation your people are having with their leader will work to build trust and respect.

Whether that's their education, their kids, their hobby or whatever drives them, learn it and don't forget it! These conversations don't have to be long or formal either, usually 5 minutes is sufficient. Keep them informal and on topic, which is you as their leader, getting to know them.

Naturally during the conversation, they will reciprocate and ask about you, don't be rude or withholding, share openly but quickly return the conversation back to them. That's the mission, getting to know them so you don't have to rely on your formal authority.

Be Fair, firm and consistent in your leadership

You have spent the the first two steps getting to know your team, now this step is about helping them get to know you. As we have already mentioned, your work and everything you do is under a microscope and you better believe that what you say to one person will get repeated to others. It is therefore, hyper critical that you execute this step well.

Know what you stand for and be resolute in acting on it in all of the little decisions you make. If that's a specific vision for your team, department, unit what have you, then be consistent with it. Your followers need to know that they can depend on the playing field and the rules being the same for everyone regardless of their role.

Even though we are trying to lead without formal authority, you still have formal authority. That means that you still have formal work to accomplish. Examples of this might include writing an employee up for violating a policy. When done properly, then you should hopefully not have to do it again. You must ensure however that if you hold one person accountable to that policy, that you hold all of your people accountable to it as well.

a statue balancing scales

Start sharing who you are when it makes sense