How do you show authority over someone

Natural authority can be learned

Matthias Nöllke, holds a doctorate in literature and is a trained journalist, is a multiple book author, keynote speaker and management coach based in Munich. Management bionics is one of his specialties. Photo: Uli Regenscheid.

No goal-oriented development without leadership. No leadership without authority. But why doesn't the one who is at the top of the podium have the authority in a team? And why do many executives find it so difficult to have authority over their team? A look at nature shows that natural authority has little to do with hierarchy. The good news: It can be learned.

In all socially living animal species, the group members negotiate their status with one another. For humans, tangible rank fights are taboo. The methods of demonstrating authority are more subtle. And you have to and can master it if you want to lead a group. This shows management thought leaders Matthias Nöllke in the HR channel from

There are managers who have a high level of intelligence, they are technically competent, maybe even personable. They can empathize with others, yet they lack one crucial ability: natural authority. But they can use them for their job. Because without natural authority, leadership is much more arduous. Sooner or later you will encounter resistance. The others are not ready to follow someone like that for granted. There are objections, concerns, some simply ignore the requirements. Then the question arises: How do you react? End discussion? Threaten, build pressure, impose penalties? Is all of no use. Or only for a short time. Because it doesn't change anything: Without natural authority, you will always get problems like this.

But what is natural authority anyway? And how does it come about? If we take a look at the animal kingdom, we get one or two clues. Social animals live in more or less fixed hierarchies. In doing so, they first have to clarify their status. This is even more important than ranking as high as possible. You want to know where you stand. Ambiguities are stressful. This also applies to human teams. It is not the official hierarchy that is decisive, but how the individual group members adapt to each other.

Automatically, without us being aware of it, we negotiate who is in charge. You can have the highest status in a group, even if you are officially just a simple member. If you have the strongest natural authority, the team leader will not disregard your will either.

Clarify the balance of power right at the beginning

If you are new to a group, you must first be located in your status. This is no different from our hairy cousins. Your appearance will determine how you are classified. If you are to take the lead, it is important that you exude natural authority from the start. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to tell others what to do. Of course, you can ask the others for advice, wait and see, first of all. It is crucial that you do not fall behind the others, that you do not subordinate yourself to them and that you do not allow yourself to be played down. Something like that is difficult to catch up later.

A special case is when you were previously a simple group member and are now supposed to take the lead. This only works if you change your behavior and consciously accept the leadership role. This affects your body language, voice, and demeanor. Such a change can definitely succeed. Because when you take on the leadership role, a new situation arises. But you have to clearly mark this through your behavior. If someone behaves towards you like in the "old days", you must not let that get away with.

Appearance and charisma

Animals cannot express their status through language. Everything therefore shows in their posture and the way they move.

These signals are understood immediately. The conspecifics adapt their own behavior accordingly. It's not that different for us humans. We, too, are social animals and in principle react the same way when someone dominates or signals that they are subordinate to us. It is also difficult to counter this: If you find that your boss is avoiding your eyes, you can't help but feel superior to him. It's an almost physical reaction.

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You can only gain natural authority if you act appropriately to others. First and foremost, this means that you exude strength and security, including self-confidence. You move slowly, in no way hastily. You treat others openly and friendly, in no way hostile. This does not prevent you from reacting immediately if someone does not treat you with respect. You have to insist on this, otherwise your natural authority will be lost - even with those who are not directly affected but only witness.

Even the little things can count. And yet it characterizes people with natural authority that they simply let some provocation bounce off them. You choose not to pay any attention to such maneuvers. That would only enhance them. They prefer to spare their energies for the things that are really important.

Authority is given by others

Whether and how much authority someone has depends to a large extent on the others. Authority is granted to you - or not. Above all, it is granted under three conditions:

  • Clarity: It is clear to the others what you stand for.

  • Competence: The others trust you to do what you intend to do.

  • Common goal: You want to achieve something that is good for others.

The result is what weakens your natural authority: do you remain vague, reveal doubts, or does it seem like you are being instrumentalized by others? Do you reveal gaps in your knowledge, speak out loud to others, but above all: do you judge badly? Little things can undermine your authority. But competence and clarity are of no use to you if you are pursuing a goal that other people are only marginally interested in or that may worry them.

In a nutshell, natural authority means that others want to be guided by you because they trust that this will be done for their good.

Clarify conflicts instead of a cuddle course

The clarity of natural authority includes not avoiding conflicts, but rather looking for them in order to then resolve them. Conflicts indicate differences of interest. They have to be on the table. Only in this way can they be clarified. Natural authority is not compatible with a cuddle course. She seeks confrontation rather than evading it. Not to intimidate the others, but to clarify positions and find a solution.

The supposed power of vulnerability

Natural authority is most developed through the power of personality. We have the impression that our counterpart is completely with himself and is not following a role. This is precisely where the difference to a “non-natural” authority lies. This is based on agreements, position power or the assumption of a management function. On the other hand, natural authority is established by not pretending to be, but rather being as “natural” and “authentic” as possible. Such a widespread belief. Accordingly, you gain natural authority if you do not cover up weaknesses, but show them. From the author Brene Brown the term comes from the "power of vulnerability". If you show yourself to be “vulnerable”, that connects you with the others. It takes away the fear that you might abuse your power. You are just as vulnerable as any of us. However, it is worth taking a closer look so that you don't shoot yourself out of bounds.

It is true that those who are particularly tough and invulnerable often do so to cover up their deficits. This is already the case in the animal kingdom: Alpha animals that are weakened or wounded are more threatening than their energetic colleagues. In addition, you pay a high price for constant dominance. Because such demonstrations of strength cost a lot of energy. In the long run you cannot afford this tough character armor. And it's true: real sovereignty is shown above all where someone openly confesses their weaknesses. But this can only happen as long as your own position is not endangered.

Highlighting one's own weaknesses is, so to speak, a “handicap signal” (read in the book chapter on the “three success principles of nature”): You can only afford it if you are completely safe. The “power of vulnerability” only unfolds as long as you cannot be seriously injured. As soon as you are dealing with a competitor that is halfway the same, you will immediately lose out if you can show where you are actually "vulnerable". Also, the support of your own people crumbles as soon as they get the impression that you are bruised or easily wounded. We prefer to follow someone who exudes strength rather than “vulnerability”.

And finally, you also weaken your position in negotiations if you make it clear where you are vulnerable and where you are dependent on the other side. It is a fatal error to assume that you will be met when you know how much you need the other. The opposite is the case. The other will feel compelled to raise the price for the agreement significantly. The assumption that he will meet you because he likes you and you are in the same boat anyway is very naive. It is true that after an agreement it is part of the process to emphasize the common interests, but the decisive question is who got what and who was able to prevail on disputed points. It may well be that the supposedly weaker side was able to achieve a lot more on balance. But only if it can make it credible that it is not so dependent on an agreement, but can very well do without it. Or it turns out in the course of the negotiations that the supposed weaknesses and vulnerabilities are not at all, but rather served to lull the negotiating partner into security.

Courtesy of the Haufe Verlag.

Matthias Nöllke

ManagementBIOnik. How animals and plants can inspire leaders. Including work aids online

277 paperback pages. EUR 24.95

ISBN 978-3-648-12404-8

Haufe Verlag 2019