Tyrion the Trusted Advisor: What Game of Thrones Teaches Us about Influencing Without Authority
I have always loved the Game of Thrones TV series.
And what has fascinated me the most is the treatment of the Trusted Advisor, beautifully portrayed by Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion embodies important ingredients of a trusted advisor who influences decision-makers as we’ll see below (warning – some plot spoilers ahead)
To influence without authority, we need to establish trust, be prepared, and have courage
Simply put, it’s impossible to influence anyone who doesn’t trust us. In the Game of Thrones (GOT) trusted advisors are called Hands, probably because they are really the right-hand of the king or queen and it is a highly powerful position. Hands have the ear of the ruler, but if the ruler doesn’t trust the hand—watch out! In Season 1, for example, the Hand to King Robert Baratheon is Ned Stark, who reluctantly accepts the position. Although King Robert trusts him and accepts his advice, his queen does not. When the king dies, the queen and her ruthless son, behead him in a shocking warning of what happens to advisors who are not trusted.
Tyrion, on the other hand, is not initially trusted by anyone. However, throughout the series he works to establish trust by being prepared before giving any advice to his queen, Daenerys Targaryen, and by having an overabundance of courage. Early in the show Tyrion is an exhaustive reader, doing his homework and his advice, as Daenerys slowly realizes, is usually sound. When she follows his advice, it almost always works (I know fans, there are instances when Tyrion gets fooled). When she doesn’t listen to him, things don’t go well for her. For example, in the penultimate episode, Tyrion advises sparing the lives of innocents, but Daenerys rejects that advice, leading to her ultimate destruction. And as Hand, Tyrion shows unimaginable courage when he provides advice knowing that it’s unwanted, but also knowing it is absolutely the right course of action.
One more example of Tyrion’s courage. In the last episode of Season 8, Tyrion understands that he can no longer support a Queen who wants power so much that she is willing to do just about anything to get it. Although he knows that he will be arrested for “treason,” Tyrion cannot support such actions. In an act of defiance that he knows will condemn him to death by dragon fire, he deliberately resigns his post, taking off his Hand badge and throwing it away.
Our projects require us to build trust, to be prepared before giving advice to decision-makers, and to be courageous. In some organizations it takes a great deal of courage to be the bearer of bad news as when we need to provide accurate project status or when we point out risks. Although not as dire as in the GOT, it still takes courage to recommend the right thing for the organization. Not all decision-makers want to hear from us about why the organization should move in a new direction, or develop a new process, or build a long-term solution when the organization wants short-term fixes. What gives us courage, of course, is knowing what we’re talking about. It’s having the facts and the statistics to back up our recommendations. It’s being prepared. It’s also the ability to articulate and sell our recommendations. When our recommendations turn out to help our organizations, we, like Tyrion, gain credibility and build trust.
To influence without authority, we need to provide advice to the decision-makers, but not own the decisions.
In an episode a few seasons ago Tyrion gave Daenerys a piece of advice that she refused. Tyrion then says to another advisor, Lord Varys, that he, Tyrion, can give the queen his advice, but he can’t force her to take it. In Season 7 Tyrion advises against killing traitors with dragon fire. When she kills them anyway, Tyrion agonizes over what he could have done to stop her.
This is what we call the trusted advisor’s dilemma. We need to provide advice—good, sound advice backed up with facts, but we are not the decision-maker. We can point out risks and consequences, but we cannot make the decisions ourselves. We want to make our advice so sound that if we know the decision-makers are off course we can convince them of another course of action, but that is not always possible. The only thing we can do is to ensure that our recommendations are in the best interest of the organization and not promoting our own personal goals, even when our goals seem in conflict with the organization’s.
The trusted advisor’s dilemma: “We need to provide advice—good, sound advice backed up with facts, but we are not the decision-maker.”
Years ago I was a manager in the unenviable position of having to eliminate an entire department. The department supervisor remained positive throughout, recommending shut-down and transfer processes. Somehow, he communicated the business need for the shut-down and his own optimism to the staff. In the end he was promoted and none of the staff lost their jobs.
Respect, authenticity, and empathy help us to influence without authority.
Throughout the 8 seasons of Game of Thrones, Tyrion experiences tremendous growth. He goes from being not much more than a selfish, heavy-drinking womanizer to a Hand who agonizes over the consequences of his advice, his conflicting loyalties, and giving advice that truly benefits the realm, rather than what’s best for him. He becomes a true friend, caring brother, and overall good guy. He shows respect for the would-be Queen, even when she makes terrible decisions. He demonstrates authenticity (we can see his pain), and empathy for his friends. By the end of the series Tyrion becomes perhaps the most influential character.
In our organizations we have a greater influence when our approach is respectful, authentic, and empathetic. Expertise alone does not create competency. Most people do not relate well to “know-it-alls,” and trying to showcase our expertise rarely builds credibility. We are most successful when we use our expertise to support the organization, rather than for personal gain or visibility.
To summarize, as trusted advisors we provide our advice, but we do not make decisions. We build trust in many ways, including establishing credibility by being prepared when we make recommendations, being respectful and empathetic when giving our advice, and by showing courage.