Influencing Up


By Marshall Goldsmith

Organizations suffer when key people can’t effectively influence up. Most people are occupied with efforts rather than results. They worry over what the organization or their boss owes them and should do for them and obsess over the authority they ‘should have,’ thus rendering themselves ineffectual.

Although knowledge workers may know more about what they are doing than their managers do and have years of education and experience, they rarely know how to effectively influence up. Even the greatest wisdom and knowledge not applied to action and behavior is meaningless.

To influence upper management and convert good ideas into meaningful action, follow these 10 guidelines:

1. When presenting ideas, realize that it is your responsibility to sell– not their responsibility to buy. Influencing up is similar to selling products or services to customers.

They don’t have to buy–you have to sell! Great salespeople take responsibility for achieving results, refusing to blame their customers for not buying their products. Most professionals blame management for not buying their ideas; hence, upward feedback often turns into ‘upward buck-passing.’ You become disempowered when you focus on what others have done to make things wrong–not what you can do to make things right.

By developing your ability to present ideas, and not blaming management for not buying your ideas, you accomplish much more. The knowledge worker is expected to take responsibility for being understood. It is arrogance to assume that laymen can or should make the effort to understand the specialist. The effective upward influencer needs to be a good teacher.


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Good teachers realize the communicating knowledge is often a greater challenge than possessing knowledge.

2. Focus on contribution to the larger good–not just the achievement of your objectives. An effective salesperson would never say to a customer, ‘You need to buy this product, because if you don’t, I won’t achieve my objectives!’ They relate to the needs of the buyers, not to their own needs. Similarly, effective upward influencers relate to the larger needs of the organization, not just to the needs of their unit or team. When influencing up, focus on the impact of the decision on the organization. In most cases, the needs of the unit and the needs of the corporation are directly connected. In some cases they are not.

Don’t assume that executives can automatically ‘make the connection’ between the benefit to your 

unit and the benefit to the larger corporation.

3. Strive to win the big battles and don’t waste your energy and ‘psychological capital’ on trivial points.

Leader’s time is limited. Don’t waste time on issues that will only have a negligible impact on results –focus on issues that will make a real difference. Be willing to ‘lose’ on small points. Be sensitive to the need to win trivial nonbusiness arguments on things like restaurants, sports teams or cars. People become more annoyed with you for having to be ‘right’ on trivia than your need to be right on important business points.

You are paid to do what makes a difference and to win on important issues.

4. Present a realistic cost-benefit analysis of your ideas–don’t just sell benefits. Every organization has limited resources, time, and energy. The acceptance of your idea may well mean the rejection of another idea that someone else believes is wonderful. Be prepared to have a realistic discussion of the costs of your idea. Acknowledge that something else may have to be sacrificed to implement your idea. When you prepare for a realistic discussion of costs, you can ‘prepare for objections’ to your idea, acknowledge the sacrifice that someone else may have to make, and point out how the benefits of your plan outweigh the costs.

5. Challenge up on issues involving ethics or integrity–never remain silent on ethics violations. Enron, WorldCom, and other organizations show how ethics violations–only one violation of corporate integrity–can damage or destroy even the most valuable companies.

If your management ever asks you to do anything that violates corporate ethics, refuse to do it and immediately let upper management know of your concerns. Such action ultimately benefits your company, your customers, your co-worker and yourself. When challenging up, try not to assume that management has intentionally requested you to do something wrong. In some cases, inappropriate requests may be made because of misunderstandings or poor communication. Try to present your case in a manner that is intended to be helpful, not judgmental.

6. Realize that your managers are just as human as you are–don’t say, ‘I am amazed that someone at this level…’ It is realistic to expect upper managers to be competent; it is unrealistic to expect them to be superhuman. Is there anything in human history that indicates when people achieve high levels of status, power and money, they become completely wise and logical? How often do you think, ‘I would assume someone at this level…’ followed by ‘should know what is happening’, ‘should be more logical’, ‘wouldn’t make that mistake’, or ‘would never engage in such inappropriate behavior.’ Even the best of leaders are human. We all make mistakes. When your managers make mistakes, focus more on helping them than judging them.

7. Treat managers with the same courtesy that you would treat partners or customers. While you must avoid ‘kissing up’ to upper management, you also must avoid the opposite reaction. Many managers spend hours ‘trashing’ the company and its executives or making destructive comments about other co-workers. Before speaking, ask four questions: Will this comment help our company? Will this comment help our customers? Will this comment help the person that I am talking to? Will this comment help the person that I am talking about? If the answers are no, don’t say it! There is a big difference between total honesty and dysfunctional disclosure. It’s vital to ‘challenge up’ on integrity issues. It is often inappropriate to ‘trash down’ when making personal attacks.

8. Support the final decision of the team–don’t say, ‘They made me tell you’ to direct reports. Assuming that the final decision of the team is not immoral, illegal, or unethical–go out and try to make it work! Managers who consistently say, ‘they told me to tell you’ to co-workers are seen as ‘messengers’ not leaders. Even worse, don’t say, ‘those fools told me to tell you’. By revealing your lack of commitment to the final decision, you may sabotage the chances for effective exe cution. When communicating difficult decisions, ask, ‘How would I want someone to communicate to their people if they were passing down my final decision and they disagreed with me?’ Treat your manager in the same way that you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed.

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9. Make a positive difference–don’t just try to ‘win’ or ‘be right’. You can easily become more focused on what others are doing wrong, than how you can make things better. An important guideline in influencing up is to always remember your goal to make a positive difference for your organization. Corporations are different than academic institutions. In an academic institution the goal may be sharing ideas, not impacting the world. Hours of acrimonious debate can be perfectly acceptable.

In a corporation, sharing ideas without having an impact is worse than useless. It is a waste of the stockholders money and a distraction from serving customers. The most common area for improvement for most executives is the compulsion of ‘winning too much’.

Focus on making a difference. The more other people can ‘be right’ or ‘win’ with your idea, the more likely your idea is to be successfully executed.

10. Focus on the future–let go of the past. Avoid whining about the past.

Have you ever managed someone who incessantly whined about how bad things are? When people consistently whine, they inhibit any chance they have for impacting the future. Their managers view them as annoying, and their direct reports view them as inept.

Nobody wins. Successful people love getting ideas aimed at helping them achieve their goals for the future. They dislike being ‘proven wrong’ because of mistakes in the past. By focusing on the future, you can concentrate on what can be achieved tomorrow, as opposed to what was not achieved yesterday. This future orientation will dramatically increase your odds of effectively influencing up and build better long-term relationships.

How much energy have you invested in acquiring your knowledge? How much energy have you invested in learning to present this knowledge so that you can make a real difference? By learning to influence up, you can make a large, positive difference for the future of your organization! LE

Marshall Goldsmith helps successful leaders achieve positive, measurable change, and author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There Visit

ACTION: Focus more on the future.

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