Influencing Up

Leadership Excellence

July 20, 2010

by Marshall Goldsmith

Knowledge workers know more about what they are doing than their managers do; however, few know how to effectively influence upper management. In fact, ‘Knows how to influence up in a constructive way’ scores last on evaluations. I am not surprised. This is the norm, not the exception. Most knowledge workers do not effectively ‘influence up.’ These 10 guidelines will help you to influence your top management and convert good ideas into meaningful action:

1.When presenting your ideas, realize that it is your responsibility to sell–not their responsibility to buy. Influencing up is similar to selling to customers. They don’t have to buy–you have to sell and take responsibility for results. You can’t blame your customers for not buying your product. And yet most people blame management for not buying their ideas. So upward feedback often turns into ‘upward buck-passing.’ We become ‘disempowered’ when we focus on what others have done to make things wrong and not what we can do to make things right. Develop your ability to present and sell your ideas. And stop blaming management.

2. Focus on contributing to the larger good–not just achieving 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 goals!’ They relate to the needs of the buyers and to the larger needs of the organization, not just to the needs of their unit or team.

Focus on the impact of the decision.

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’– don’t waste your energy and ‘psychological capital’ on trivial points.

Executives’ time is limited. Do an analysis of ideas before ‘challenging the system.’ Don’t waste time on issues that have a negligible impact on results.

Be willing to ‘lose’ on small points and trivial arguments. People become more annoyed with us for having to be ‘right’ on trivia than our need to be right on important 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. All organizations have limited resources. 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 in order to implement your idea. By getting ready to discuss costs, you prepare for objections to your idea. You can acknowledge the sacrifice that someone else may have to make and show how the benefits of your plan outweigh the costs.

5.Challenge up on issues involving ethics or integrity. Ethics violations can destroy even the most valuable companies.

Hopefully, you will never be asked to do anything that represents a violation of corporate ethics. If you are, refuse to do it–and let upper management know of your concerns. When challenging up, don’t assume that management has intentionally requested you to do something wrong. Inappropriate requests may be made because of misunderstandings or poor communication.

Present your case in a helpful manner.

6. Realize that your upper managers are just as ‘human’ as you are. It is realistic to expect upper managers to be competent; it is unrealistic to expect them to be better than normal humans.

There is nothing in history to indicate when people achieve high levels of status, power and money, they become ‘wise’ and ‘logical.’ How many times have we thought, ‘I would assume someone at this level . . .’ followed by ‘should know what is happening,’ ‘wouldn’t make that mistake,’ or ‘would never engage in such 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 upper managers with the same courtesy that you would treat partners or customers.Avoid ‘kissing up,’ but also avoid being disrespectful. Many managers spend hours ‘trashing’ the company and its executives or making destructive comments about co-workers.

Avoid destructive comments.

Before speaking, ask two questions: Will this comment help our company and our customers? Will this comment help the person that I am talking to or about? If the answers are no, don’t say it! There’s a difference between total honesty and dysfunctional disclosure.

8. Support the final decision of the team. Assuming that the final decision of the team is not immoral, illegal or unethical, go out and try to make it work! Managers who say, ‘They told me to tell you’ to co-workers are seen as ‘messengers’ not leaders. By not supporting the final decision, you sabotage the chances for effective execution.

9.Make a positive difference–don’t just try to ‘win’ or ‘be right.’We can easily become more focused on what others are doing wrong, than how we can make things better. So, remember your goal–make a positive difference.

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

10. Focus on the future and let go of the past.Avoid ‘whining’ about the past.

When you whine, you inhibit any chance to impact the future. Your managers tend to view you as annoying and your direct reports 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 what can be achieved tomorrow and increase your odds on effectively influencing up.

By making a small investment in learning to influence up, you can make a large, positive difference! LE

Marshall Goldsmith is the best selling author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There Visit

ACTION: Influence up effectively.