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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

Situations will begin to slowly present themselves that will allow you the opportunity to share who you are with your team. Be it on a project where someone asks for your advice and you get the chance to share your expertise.

Perhaps it will be a coachable moment when someone makes a mistake and you can share a personal learning experience. Sometimes it will be in a meeting when you are sharing personal stories. These small, everyday situations is where you can help the team learn more about you. Be sure to be genuine and judicious with what you share. Remember the goal is to build a connection so you aren't relying on your formal authority.

Lead your people with humility and respect

The best leaders are the ones who understand the formal roles that everyone needs to play. If you are leading a highly skilled technical team, then don't presume to know their job better than they do. If you are leading a highly energized team on a project, then just let them do it and help guide them to the goal instead of pushing them it will only come off as micromanagement.

Understand the situation you find yourself in and adapt to it. Leadership is anything but a one size fits all approach. If you did the first few steps well, this step should be easy. Your formal authority gives you the right to lead but it is on the leader to earn the ability to lead your people.

If you work hard at managing your reputation as a leader that leads with humility and respect then your informal authority will grow without much other effort!

Tying it all together

There is an old adage in management, hire people smarter than you for the job you need done, then let them do it. If you are able to execute the steps above well, then exercising your formal authority with your people should be something you never have to even think about doing.

There is an awesome book written by Dale Carnegie called How to Win Friends and Influence People. This book has been a staple in leadership libraries for decades and for good reason. It takes a very close look into the factors that drive human behavior and how leaders can make use of those factors to grow their leadership influence and not have to exercise their formal authority.

Here is a helpful quick reference infographic on how to avoid exercising your formal authority as well, fell free to save it!

An infographic with steps showing how to avoid exercising your formal authority

We'd love to hear about your experiences with building your leadership brand. Tell us in the comments down below or drop us an email at

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