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Respect and experience would trump authority. If you respect a person because they maybe a expert in their field, have many years of experience successfully delivering multiple complexity of projects, are personable, outgoing and approachable, these type of people are able to not only influence their colleagues in the workplace but also people within their personal and professional networks.
Finding the right mix between influencing people and manipulation is dependent upon the reasons for the need to influence.
Influence maybe required when dealing with clients and stakeholder who may not have the necessary experience and understanding but who are saving face by embarking on an approach that is otherwise unnecessary.
In these situations, a skilled professional is needed to bring the project back on track without disrespecting or undermining the clients status and ranking.
You should always be careful how you use influence and the reason for it as it can rapidly spiral into coercion, bullying and other forms of behavior that should not be brought into the workplace.
Trying to be a nice guy since 2007.
That's when I started to learn and practice my leadership.
I read 100's of books on leadership and found that John C. Maxwell was to my liking because he partly wrote from other experience while proposing how to deal with certain problems. So, I incorporated his directions and tried and failed and tried... until it started working for me. I was founding my niche and my golden nugget.
When people speak of influence, they usually refer to a position, education, or experience which they gained and because of it, they want others with lesser (plug in here) to comply with their directions, wishes, needs...
John C. Maxwell paraphrased someone when he said that people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.
You can choose a shortcut and go for a position (which is only as powerful as your position) but until you truly care and invest in people, you will not have any influence over them.
To anwser that question properly certainly is needed a lot more context in your particular case.
However generally speaking, in my point of view the authority has low impact in the degree of influence that a person is able to make. Empathy's, collaboration, empowerment, delegation, relationships, networking, clear communication, facts, analytical thinking etc... are far more effective in the influence strategy in it's pure state, sure we have to think in the political environment of the company and it's culture.
In the way you put the question let me think that if the people are easy to influence when the level of authority is high than what is happening is not only influencing and could be happening several situations:
1 - in fact some can be influenced.
2 - some are accommodated and agreeing with the decisions what ever they're, probably they think that express their opinion will change nothing.
3 - others can be eager to please thinking they will gain something with that.
4 - Can be a strategic decision from the worker to be considered positive and supportive in the future, positivism is a trend.
5 - could be result of feer in express their opinion.
Only analyzing the company environment, the cultural environment and the team and leadership style can I express a true opinion.
But you should not confuse influence with power.
Power can make thinks happen without true influence, if the power is autocratic you are not influencing.
Formal authority has limited benefits when it comes to influencing someone to buy-in to a decision or a task and to feel they own it. If you have the ability to punish them for not doing it, they will perform the task but grudgingly and with no real sense of ownership.
On the other hand, if you take the time to understand them and align the work with their needs & wants, you will usually get a better outcome.
It's all about building personal relationships. You need to build trust and respect before people listen to you and consider your points.
If you do not know how to do that then you can not be a project manager. Sorry, I know it can sound rude, but is a true. With that said, the way you do that has to be aligned with organizational culture. Take it into account first.
Formal authority doesn't preclude your choice to inspire, motivate, or just generally be a nice leader.
Getting to know the team and what drives them has worked best for me. If you understand what motivates (or demotivates) people, then its much easier to work with them and get result.
Having good relationships with team members with authority can also help spread your influence (if you're both on the same page).
Although it is very challenging being a project manager, and even that I kinda agree with what you say, I guess we are not perfect though and we, project managers, are also human being and sometimes it is not that easy to do so and unfortunately some people we need to manage might be really hard to deal with. So it is also nice that we give ourselves some credits as most of the time we are the taking most of the initiatives and not the other side ...
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