Ever worked with a colleague or boss and struggled to get them to do something that needed to be done?

In many situations, we have the benefit of controlling a wide range of consequences and the authority that allows us to encourage the needed behavior. A boss has authority over a subordinate, a parent over their child, a teacher over their student. Indeed, Stanley Milgram showed us the sometimes frightening power that authority can give us (Milgram, 1963). Yet, in many other situations, from working with your boss, coworker, review board member, or another parent in the PTA, we find ourselves with no authority, and control over few effective consequences. This means we have to rely on other means to get people to perform in a way that will get the job done.

So how do you lead without authority and create the behavior that you need in others? The answer is simple – using the same principles and techniques that you would with any other behavior! 

Indeed, when many behavior analysts work with a new client (whether they be an individual with developmental disabilities or a corporate executive), they often start in a situation with low authority and need to earn trust, attention, and compliance.

So what does that look like in a peer-to-peer situation?

One behavior analyst was tasked with developing and implementing behavior plans for children in a school special education program. To succeed, he desperately needed the cooperation of the classroom teachers. Unfortunately, he was put into a politically sensitive situation; the teachers had agreed to his presence in the classroom, but the administration had backed off on giving him any formal authority. This meant that the teachers really didn’t have to do anything in the behavior plans that he had written. 

Fortunately, he was a skilled behavior analyst and knew just how to apply science in a situation like this. He started out by chatting with the teachers about whatever they wanted to talk about. He was a good listener, providing lots of eye contact, laughing at the right times, asking questions, and showing genuine interest. During these conversations, he found out that many of the teachers had a serious sweet tooth – what he saw as an opportunity to do some pairing. So he started coming in every day with a plate of home-baked cookies, which the teachers loved. He did some more listening and learned about some behavior problems the teachers were dealing with, unrelated to his job. He worked hard to provide some simple suggestions that wound up helping. 

By the time he had finished his assessments and developed his behavior plans, the teachers loved him. When he needed their help in implementing his programs, he started small and provided a ton of reinforcement for their cooperation. Soon enough he was able to get his behavior plans in place, and most all of the teachers on board with him. 

Notice there was no need for formal authority in this situation, only good use of behavioral principles. And indeed, many of the best approaches for effectively leading the people you work with are the same ones that behavior analysts use with their clients. 


Spend time establishing yourself as a reinforcer. Talk about what they want to talk about in casual conversation, find something to compliment them on, see if there are any small problems you can solve for them and if all else fails bring them cookies. Read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People for tons of great specific suggestions on becoming a conditioned reinforcer (Carnegie, 1981). 

Treat it as an opportunity for shaping. Any small approximation towards your desired behavior you should reinforce heavily, even if it starts a long way from the behavior you want. 

Make your initial task demands small and response effort low. A friend was interested in getting his remote colleagues to check in regularly with e-mail communication on their projects. Rather than asking for detailed reports every day he started out by simply asking them “how are things going?” This prompted responding, which he reinforced heavily, and eventually led him to get the daily reports he desired. Think of this as a high probability instructional sequence (Mace et al., 1988), but remember the importance of providing reinforcement after the completion of each task demand (Zuluaga & Normand, 2008). 

Think about the timing of your requests to capitalize on motivating operations. Are you asking someone to do something when there are already heavy task demands on them? Is the person looking to impress his or her boss by getting involved in another project (i.e. yours)? Consider how these variables will change the reinforcing/punishing effectiveness of your demands.

If you are able to apply just a couple of these suggestions you will find that you don’t need formal authority to influence the behavior of others – just good old fashioned behavior analysis.


Chu, J. (2015). Autism and Work: Businesses Bridge the Gap. Inc. Magazine, June 2015, page 34.

Microsoft set to hire people with autism. April 7, 2015. CBS News. Retrieved on June 25, 2015, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/microsoft-to-recruit-hire-people-with-autism/?1234

Three new employment tools for the autism community. Autism Speaks. Retrieved on June 25, 2015, https://www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/adult-services/three-employment-tools

The organizations highlighted in Inc. Magazine article

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