Leading without managing

Reading time: 11 minutes

What does it mean to lead when you don’t have coercive power to get your way?

leader vs manager

Good managers are often good leaders. But managers don’t have to be good leaders to get their way because they have authority to make decisions unilaterally.

What if you don’t have that authority?

Perhaps you’re an individual contributor. Perhaps you are a manager, but want to show leadership when you’re the junior person in the room. In both cases, you lack the authority that comes from coercive power.

There’s a big difference between leading and managing.

  • A manager says: “Do this because I want you to.”

  • A leader says: “Do this because you want you to.”

A leader appeals to the self-interest of the people being led.

But if people were going to do something anyway, were they really led and was anyone really leading? A leader is only truly leading if they changed something about those who followed.

To really lead, you have to change how people think about the world and how they act as a result. And to do that well, you need to know how to read the room and how to ask effective questions.

Reading the room means knowing the obstacles you face.

You may have heard the advice to have strong opinions, weakly held. There are good critiques of taking the idea too far, but the two central ideas are insightful for understanding what kind of leadership is called for in different situations:

  • Strong vs weak opinions: are people already attached to an idea of the future or are they in search of direction?

  • Strongly vs weakly held: how much conviction do people have that their idea is right? How open are they to an alternative point of view?

Self-interest tends to be a strong opinion, strongly-held. For individuals, it might even be an unconscious desire, such as a preference for the status quo and a resistance to change.

For organizations, self-interest might be communicated in vision or strategy documents. For a team, it might be communicated in planning or project goals. It might also be unstated in the form of values, traditions, or assumptions. Because these aren’t in the open, they are the hardest to change.

Given someone’s existing self-interest, a leader can change how they go about pursuing that interest. Or, a leader can change what someone thinks is in their interest. Or both.

Compared to self-interest itself, the specific methods for achieving goals tend to be weaker opinions or weakly-held. This makes them easier to influence.

When opinions are weak, be the Sage.

The easiest situation you’ll find is when interests are aligned, but people are stuck on how to achieve their desires, and where you already have respect or deference for the topic at hand.

As the Sage, you’re already expected to have wisdom and are substituting your strong opinion for other peoples' weak ones. You may not need to explain your reasoning, though it often reinforces why people look to you as the Sage. Plus, your explanation educates the team, helping them make better decisions in the future.

Watch out for the trap!

If you’re in this situation but you don’t already have respect or deference on the topic at hand, you’ll need to employ a different strategy, as if the opinions are strong opinions, perhaps even strongly-held.

And you have a meta-leadership problem to consider. Are relevant perceptions of you strong or weak and strongly or weakly held and what do you want to do about that?

When opinions are weakly-held, be the Detective.

The next easiest situation you’ll find is when people have a point of view based on what they already know of the world, but are open to another view. However, they’re not just going to take your word for it because you say so.

In this situation, your ability to lead as the Detective depends on your ability to provide factual evidence and construct a convincing case that changes their thinking. Unlike the Sage situation – where your rationale is secondary to your expertise – here the strength of the case you build is crucial to successfully convincing people to change.

Watch out for the trap!

If you find yourself feeling that despite your best case, the people you want to convince seem irrational in the face of your evidence, then you’ve got two hard problems to consider:

First, you might not be as convincing as you think you are: either your evidence or presentation is uncompelling and you need to try a different approach.

Second, despite thinking the situation is open to fact-based decisions, that might not be the case. It might be that emotional considerations – often unstated – are dominating. And confirmation bias is working against any facts you offer. In that case, you’ll need to treat beliefs as strongly-held.

When opinions are strongly-held, be the Salesperson.

The hardest case to tackle is when people have strong opinions that are strongly-held. Usually, but not always, emotional considerations dominate the decision processes. Leading people in a different direction won’t be easy.

Watch out for the trap!

  1. Is this a battle you really need to fight?

  2. Are you sure your position is right for the situation?

  3. Are you the best person to lead?

If you don’t have managerial authority, trying to lead a group that already knows what it wants might mean stepping outside the boundaries of your role. That might or might be a good career move, so be careful not to “win the battle and lose the war”.

If you’re dead set on changing minds, you have to overcome deeply-held resistance, with cognitive biases fighting you every step of the way.

Your ability to lead as the Salesperson depends on your ability to build rapport with the people you want to lead, to understand the basis for their resistance to change, and to build an emotional connection between them and an alternative to their current way of thinking. They have to want the change – they need to see it as being in their own self-interest.

To overcome resistance, ask effective questions.

Few teaching methods are as famous as the 2,500 year-old Socratic Method. Socrates used cooperative argument – asking and answering questions – to explore beliefs and challenge those that lie on shaky presuppositions.

Used effectively, questions lead indirectly. They create opportunities to explore alternative ways of thinking with less confrontation.

The problem with confrontation is that it triggers defensiveness – hardening someone’s views, not making them malleable. You need to avoid aggressive “aren’t you wrong?” questions. Instead, use non-confrontational “can you help me understand?” questions. By asking engaged questions like this, you show that you respect someone’s ideas. This is a better starting point for persuasion than directly countering their point of view.

When asking questions, adopt a tone of curiosity, not interrogation.

In some cases, it might also help to ask questions using “we” phrasing rather than “you” phrasing. This subtle shift puts you and your listeners on the same side and the questions take on a tone of group introspection rather than challenge. You can use this while reading the room to gauge the strength of opinions.

“It sounds like we believe <idea>. How confident are we that’s the case?”

Questions can identify areas of agreement and disagreement. This is particularly useful when several ideas have been proposed and a conversation is bouncing between them.

“Can we step back a minute? Do we all agree on <this part of the problem/proposal>?”

Areas of agreement create a foundation for extending agreement into new areas.

Use open questions to explore new ideas.

Given a prompt, it’s hard for our brains not to take the hint. (Example: don’t think of a zebra-striped elephant.)

Open questions are prompts that can’t be answered with a yes or no. Once a question is posed, your audience can’t help but think about it, even if they don’t want to answer. When someone has dug into their opinion and is ready to argue with any statement you make to the contrary, a non-threatening question can slip past those defenses and prompt a moment of thought.

Even better, if someone answers a question that takes them in a new direction of thought, they have a feeling of investment in the answer. They’re more likely to believe it for having come up with it themselves.

This is a great way to identify assumptions underlying someone’s opinions or to reveal new assumptions previously not considered. Rather than stating what you think they are, ask questions that get your listeners to reach those conclusions for themselves.

“What do we know about what our users value about our app? …[listening]… How will this project change those factors?”

One tactical secret to open questions is to shut up! Silence is uncomfortable, so the less you speak after asking, the more you’ll get from people. Don’t cut them off early with your own thoughts. If needed, encourage them to go on with a small prompt like “can you elaborate?”

Explore causal chains to find common ground.

The ‘five whys’ is a famous technique for identifying root causes of a failure or process breakdown. In the ‘five whys’ technique, you iteratively ask why something happened, then why that cause happened, and so forth. The goal is to reveal deeper, fundamental causes – to treat the real problem and not just the symptoms of a problem.

You can apply this concept of tracing a causal chain as a way of finding common ground in the face of different goals, priorities, or perceptions of a problem. You may need to ask “why are we doing this?” instead of “why did that happen?” but the principle is the same.

Be careful not to sound like a five-year-old with endless whys!

You may need to break up your questions, or ask leading questions that suggest the ‘whys’ without challenging directly.

“I hear you saying that we should <X>. Is that because <Y> is a problem? … [listening] … Interesting. Sometimes when <Y> is a problem, I’ve found that’s happening because of <Z>. Does that seem possible?”

You might get answers you don’t expect, which is great, too!

The power of finding a deeper truth is that it’s easier to persuade someone to follow a different path from a point of agreement. By walking someone’s conclusion “up the tree” of their logic, you can find a point that you both agree with that could allow for your own ideas to branch off in new directions.

When faced with strong resistance, try the ‘yes ladder’.

Even after some introspection or elevating to higher-level common ground, some people need a stronger nudge to act on new information. The ‘yes ladder’ is a well-known sales technique that relies on closed questions to overcome resistance.

The approach involves asking a series of questions, initially small and agreeable, to set up a counterparty to say ‘yes’ to larger commitments later. The technique is based on real psychological research into human decision making whereby a small concession makes a later, larger concession more likely.

The first concession might be as simple as getting a “yes” to explore a new idea that previously was ignored or dismissed.

“Do we agree that our top concern is user experience?” …[yes]… “Then could we take a moment to also discuss the possible impact of our latency on UX?”

Then you might use the ‘yes ladder’ to incrementally push for a higher level of commitment to a plan of action that wasn’t on the table before.

“Given that we agree that latency might have an impact, even if we don’t know how much, could we run an experiment to measure the impact so we can compare against other factors we’re considering?”

When using the ‘yes ladder’, have an idea ahead of time how much of a concession you really need. Remember that your workplace is an iterative game. Regularly getting small concessions may be a bigger win than always pushing for the maximum concession if that frequently fails or antagonizes your coworkers.

Be realistic in your expectations and approach.

Influencing is usually more effective in person, when you can read body language and non-verbal reactions. And influencing is different in group versus 1:1 settings or when you have a strong relationship and lots of existing trust with someone. Adjust your technique and expectations to the context you’re in.

Think about whether your leadership is in service of your wants or the wants of others or your organization. Don’t forget the metagame – you may be more successful and perceived as more valuable by helping others achieve their wants than by fighting for your own.

Leading by asking questions may not always get you credit. When you ask questions that get others to come up with ideas to overcome their own resistance, not everyone will see the impact you had. That may be frustrating, but keep in mind this quote:

Leaders are best when people barely know they exist;
when their work is done, people will say: we did it ourselves.

–Lao Tzu

Special thanks to Uma, swyx, Matt, and Gergely for feedback on a draft of this article.

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