What’s the Buzz? Authority to Lead

I thought it might be fun to give a type of “retrospective” about a main theme in many of the conversations I’ve been having with HIVE members lately. (And thanks to David Clark for prompting me to write this!) As an organizational psychologist, I may approach things a little differently than someone coming from IT and trying to solve the big question(s) around: How to explore with a group HOW they can start changing the way they work.

Consider first whether you are IN the group, or external to them. Have you been working with them awhile or is this the start of a gig? One off? Lengthier engagement? When you start dealing with the people part of the technology equation, it matters deeply what your relationship to them is – individually, formally, informally, and as a whole. Do you have the authority to lead?

This is a fundamental question, because very often I’ve been asked to come in and sprinkle some leadership dust on an “underfunctioning” group – just wave a magic wand and all the problems go away. Stuff them full of enough literature and when they finally “get it” we can proceed. I’m sure you’ve been at the receiving end of this type of workshop as well.

I was responsible for all of the recruits in a municipal area Fire Department in a city of over 250,000 people. Supposed to deliver “leadership training”. I had many, many cohorts to “get through” – and you have to remember, these are 90% men and here I am, a very small (blonde!) woman, telling them what to do. Difficult, to say the least!

The cohorts who were just dumped there by their Chiefs did poorly, responded poorly, gained little, and were difficult to deal with. Those whose Chiefs participated WITH them and modeled the way in engaging with questions, prompting members to take the lead in group work, praising good answers … did exceptionally well and gave glowing reports back to me of how valuable the experience had been.

Now you might argue that it was a pretty idiosyncratic situation and that the IT sector is different – it’s not. I have worked across industries, countries and cultures and one thing is certain: unless you have the AUTHORITY to deliver, you may as well not bother. And by this I mean not just the contract to do so (“executive wants you to do leadership”) …. not just enough knowledge, enough experience, enough “friendly body language” …. but the psychological authority (the group accepts and acknowledges you as leader because you have the support of someone influential internally. That needn’t be the designated superior, it could be the informal group leader, too. < especially true in union settings, but I digress….).

So before “doing change management” or “leadership”, you need to know where the formal and informal lines of authority are. I would encourage you to have some key conversations before you begin in order to really understand the context. 

It matters if you already know the team (e.g. from doing other work with them) or whether you are meeting them for the first time. People will make progress only if they trust you. If you don’t have the informal authority to lead, your session won’t yield the deep results you hope for.

I ALWAYS start with a type of ”Needs Analysis”. It is two-fold: written and group work. The point is to get everyone on the same page and to manage their expectations so that you come out looking like a winner because you have satisfied what they thought they were going to get out of the session. This can take a 90-minute slot with a new group. Often, I send the written portion out in advance, so I can tailor my approach to what their expectations are (read: fears, phobias and fantasies). It is important for them to be able to express what they’d really like to get out of the session / workshop. This goes a long way to helping alleviate some of their fears and inspire more excitement about what we will be doing.

This alone won’t give you the “authority to lead” – it’s just the first step. What you do with that information matters enormously, and that’s where the second stage, in groups, comes in.

For some people, providing this initial feedback is more important than for others. There are 4 intrinsic (read: you ain’t gonna change this!) motivators that people have, influencing not only leadership but the workplace in general – teamwork, selling and buying, marketing, learning, careers, and more – but that may be a topic for another time. 

You can go a long way toward building trust and creating alignment before you officially begin.

Hope this is of interest, fellow Hivers! Please message me if you’d like to hear more.


(P.S> Here’s a link to some helpful tips on facilitating groups and more on “Buy-In Power Players”). Not all of it is likely relevant, so take a sec to scroll all the way through. https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/leadership/group-facilitation/facilitation-skills/main