how to appear more authoritative at work

If you want to be taken more seriously at work, take a look at how authoritative you appear. Many people, especially newer managers, undermine their own authority without realizing it, and then wonder why they’re not more respected.

Here are 10 ways to exude confidence and appear more authoritative at work:

1. Get clear on your own authority. Often, managers and others with authority squander it by acting as if it’s not part of their role. So if you have the authority to make decisions, move projects forward, give feedback, resolve personnel problems, and so forth, act like it. Get very clear in your own head (and with your own boss, if necessary) about precisely what authority you have, then speak and act with the confidence of your position.

2. Get aligned with your boss behind the scenes. There’s no faster way to destroy your authority than to say one thing and then have your boss reverse it later. To avoid this, get aligned with your supervisor on tricky or sensitive issues ahead of time. By getting in synch upfront, you’ll be able to act with more confidence, knowing that you won’t later learn that your boss had an entirely different take on the topic than you did. (Plus, your boss will probably appreciate the opportunity to get aligned ahead of time, too.)

3. Know what to say when you don’t know the answer. You might not know how to handle every situation that comes your way, but you can still respond with confidence. Phrases like “You’ve given me a lot to think about, so let me get back to you” or “I appreciate you raising this, and I’ll think it over” let you exit tough conversations gracefully.

4. Don’t get angry or upset. People who are confident in their own authority know they don’t need to get angry or upset with others because they have the authority to fix problems. Getting upset will undermine you, since it signals that you don’t know a more effective way to respond. For instance, if you’re talking with an employee about a performance problem, you might sound concerned, but you shouldn’t sound angry or hostile. You should be confident that you have the tools to back up your words with action if you need to.

5. Stop worrying about being liked. Your focus should be on being respected and effective, not on being liked. And to be effective, you’ll need to assert yourself without worrying about others’ approval, deliver hard messages, and make decisions that not everyone will like. But if you’re deeply invested in being liked, you’re likely to sacrifice the very behaviors that will make people take you seriously.

6. Pay attention to your tone of voice. Don’t shy away from declarative statements, and don’t end sentences with a question mark unless they’re truly questions. If you sound hesitant or unsure as a habit, people will assume that you either don’t really have the authority you should or that you’re not willing to use it.

7. Get rid of fillers like “um,” “I think,” etc. Be disciplined about erasing these fillers from your speaking, because they’ll water down your point and make you look nervous and less confident in what you’re saying.

8. Become comfortable with silence. If you’ve ever seen someone rush to fill silence by chattering nervously, you know how it can diminish their authority. So when you’re speaking, make your point, and then stop. Similarly, it’s fine to pause before responding to a question. Confident people assume that others will wait for them to speak, and that they don’t need to rush in to respond before they’ve formulated their thoughts.

9. Drop the defensiveness. While responding defensively when your decisions are questioned is generally an attempt to protect your authority, it will actually make you come across as less confident and less in charge. Confident people are open to the possibility that they might be mistaken or that there might be a better way of doing something.

10. Be direct. Rather than shying away from difficult or awkward conversations, you’ll appear far more authoritative if you simply say what needs to be said, directly and straightforwardly. Assume that addressing problems head-on is a key part of your job, and act accordingly.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 18 comments… read them below }

  1. Victoria*

    I also find, as a relatively young person and a super-casual woman at heart, that dressing more formally helps me feel more authoritative. Today I’m wearing jeans and my hair is in a ponytail; I wouldn’t wear this on a day I was doing a performance review (and perhaps I shouldn’t wear this at all, since something could come up at any moment!).

    1. Sophie*

      I can empathize, my work place is really casual and some days I can look a little too casual. Also I don’t wear makeup and I am rather young looking for my age, so a lot of people assume that I’m a student (I work at a university). Not helpful when a professor drops by and wants to speak with the person in charge, they think I”m a student worker.

  2. Henning Makholm*

    A second reason for #9 (drop the defensiveness) is that you might not be being criticized at all. I used to work for a CEO who would habitually respond to even neutral, honest requests for clarification at company meetings (“after this reorganization, will the chocolate teapot makers still be part of the Confectionary division?”) with 5+ minutes of defending the need to reorganize in the first place, describing in minute detail what was unsatisfactory about the current structure and the decision process that led to the new plans — but as often as not never get around to answering the actual question. This tended to make everyone apart from a few chronic question-askers afraid to ask for information they actually needed.

    1. Jessabeth*

      My boss does exactly this. I haven’t learned my lesson & still ask questions that *have* to be answered to do my job, but he gets angry at me for it.

      1. Henning Makholm*

        Oh, mine didn’t get angry. He’s a great guy and I’d accept an offer from him in a minute if I were looking for a new job. He just seemed to have a default assumption that every executive decision he made would make his employees unhappy, and so when anyone spoke up he panicked and tried so hard to re-happify them that he forgot to answer the actual question.

  3. Anonna Miss*

    I’ve been reading your blog for several months now and I just wanted to share something that I hope will make you feel a little better today. About a week ago my son, who is in college, told me he was going in for an interview for a really great job. He was concerned about making a great impression, of course. I told him to study up using your blog and to be sure to ask ” the magic question “. He did both. Afterwards, the interviewers said they would be contacting him within 2 weeks if he was chosen for a second interview. Well, a few days later he was called and offered the job without a 2nd interview! I truly believe he has you to thank. Your advice is always spot on. Thank you and I hope you feel better soon.

  4. The Other Dawn*

    7. Get rid of fillers like “um,” “I think,” etc.

    This is a great tip. I took a public speaking class a couple years ago and learned how these fillers can really derail the message you’re trying to deliver. I didn’t realize how often I used these fillers until I got my peer reviews after my first speech. It was tough, but by the time I finished the class I had eliminated fillers completely.

    In terms of being the person in the receiving end of someone who uses a lot of fillers, I didn’t realize how distracting it could be until I went to a seminar and they speaker repeatedly used “um.” It was SO distracting and it completely diminished what he was trying to say. It gave me the impression he didn’t know his stuff.

    1. VintageLydia*

      My husband had a speech professor who was generally very good at what he taught, but he used a LOT of fillers when he spoke. It truely wasn’t that noticeable (probably because he had an accent) except he (obviously) would get on everyone’s case about using them. Mr. Vintage started tallying how many fillers he could count in his professor’s speaking on a sheet of paper and when the prof realized what he was doing, he got so mad and embarrassed in class–but gave my husband extra credit on his next assignment.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        Well, at least he got extra credit. That was nice of the professor.

        Before taking the public speaking class I probably wouldn’t have noticed all the fillers. Now it’s like a neon sign I can’t turn off.

        1. Ms Enthusiasm*

          HaHa it’s always funny not to notice something until someone points it out to you even though it was right there the entire time. I was in a group listening to a speaking and didn’t notice anything until someone else pointed out that the speaker ended almost every other sentence with “And so forth too”. For example:

          So as you come to the end of this training you will realize how helpful it will be for your daily tasks and so forth too.

          It was so annoying I couldn’t stop noticing it after that

    2. Lexy*

      I heard an interesting story on NPR the other day (can’t remember what program… sorry) about speech and speaking patterns and they posited that there is actually an appropriate balance of fillers. If someone speaks with absolutely zero ums & uhs the listener is less likely to absorb the information, but if you speak with too many it is distracting (and can make you seem unsure of yourself).

      I would be interested to find out what the “optimum” level of fillers is.

    3. Ry*

      Yes, I agree! The way they taught it to us in school was that since “I” is the person speaking, “I think” is already implied, so to actually say “I think” sounds like hedging, or like you’re unsure of what you’re saying.

      I recently had to speak in public before a Very Important (and therefore terrifying, to me) collection of doctors and public health officials. I had to write my speech all the way out and practice it! And I still said “um” once! Argh. I’ll get there eventually… but The Other Dawn, I’m glad to hear that filler words really do matter to people – makes me feel like my efforts to remove them are not wasted.

      1. Ry*

        Erm, also, on an unrelated but morbid note… I’m at work, so I typed “The Other Dawn” all the way out because I first typed “TOD” to address you, and then read it back to myself automatically as “Time of death.” Fail. :)

      2. Ellie H.*

        I agree with this totally. I also think this applies to writing. It’s SO easy to fill writing, especially academic writing, with useless fillers like “I think” and “it seems” or “ostensibly.” You wouldn’t be trying to indicate it if you didn’t think it, it didn’t seem that way to you, or it wasn’t ostensible to you, so you should omit those needless words and replace them with evidence backing up your declarative statement!

        I do agree with Lexy that filler words can have a useful purpose, esp. if you are trying to sound colloquial or non-intimidating – something people do sometimes want to do!

        1. Jamie*

          “I do agree with Lexy that filler words can have a useful purpose, esp. if you are trying to sound colloquial or non-intimidating – something people do sometimes want to do!”

          I think another purpose they serve is as a qualifier. I was raised to not make absolute statements unless you are 100% positive that the fact can be verified and you are correct.

          “I think business plan A is the way to go.” This indicates that it’s my educated opinion, but I could be proven wrong. “Retained earnings for 2011 were $X.”

          My rule of thumb is to qualify a statement unless I’m sure enough to bet a paycheck that I’m right.

  5. Jess*

    Thank you so much for sharing your article on being more authoratative at work. I have a really tough time being authorative and people know it. I’m a recent graduate with my MSW and I need all the help I can get. Thank you.

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