The Art of Influencing Up


By Marshall Goldsmith

“Great wisdom not applied to action and behavior is meaningless data.”—Peter Drucker

Knowledge workers are people who know more about what they are doing than their boss does. My guess is that you, like most of my readers, are a knowledge worker. Many knowledge workers (especially those with technical backgrounds) have years of education and experience that enable them to come up with great ideas.

Yet this same group has almost no training in how to “influence up” and ensure that their great ideas actually get accepted. Great ideas that are never implemented don’t make much of an impact on the organization.

The guidelines listed below are intended to help you do a better job of influencing your upper management. They won’t always ensure your success, but they will definitely improve your odds!

Take responsibility. Think like a salesperson—not a technician.

In many ways, influencing up is similar to selling products or services to external customers. They don’t have to buy—you have to sell!

Any good salesperson takes responsibility for achieving results. No one is impressed with salespeople who blame their customers for not buying their products. When making your pitch, treat upper managers like great salespeople treat their customers.

While the importance of taking responsibility may seem obvious in external sales, an amazing number of people in large corporations spend countless hours blaming management for not buying their ideas, as opposed to blaming themselves for not selling those ideas. If more time were spent on developing our ability to present ideas and less on blaming management, a lot more might get accomplished.

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Focus on the big picture—not just what’s in it for you.

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!”

Effective salespeople relate to the needs of the buyers. They don’t expect buyers to relate to their needs. In the same way, 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 overall corporation. In most cases, the needs of the unit and the needs of the corporation are directly connected. In some cases, this connection isn’t so obvious. Don’t assume that executives will automatically make the connection between the benefit to your unit and significant, 

positive impact for the larger corporation.

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

An executive’s time is very limited. Do a thorough analysis of your ideas before challenging the system. 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 especially sensitive to the need to win trivial, nonbusiness arguments on things like restaurants, sports teams, or cars. People become more annoyed with us for having to be “right” on trivia than our need to be right on important business points. You are paid to do what makes a difference and to win on important issues. You are not paid to win arguments on the relative quality of athletic teams.

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 the fact that someone else’s cause may have to be sacrificed in order to have your plan implemented.

By getting ready for a realistic discussion of costs, you can prepare for objections to your idea before they occur. You can acknowledge the sacrifice that someone else may have to make and point out how the benefits of your plan outweigh the costs.

Realize that your upper 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 better than normal humans. Is there anything in the history of the human species indicating that when people achieve high levels of status, power, and money they become instantly wise and logical (or even sane)?

How many times have we thought: “I would assume someone at this level…” followed by “should know what is happening,” “should be more logical,” “wouldn’t make that kind of 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 on judging them.

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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 on how we can make things better. An important guideline in influencing up is to always remember your goal—to make a positive difference for the organization.

Corporations are different from academic institutions. In a university the goal may be sharing ideas, not having an impact on the world. In faculty meetings, hours of acrimonious debate on obscure topics can be perfectly normal.

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.

When I was interviewed in the Harvard Business Review, I was asked: “What is the most common area for improvement for the leaders that you meet?” My answer was “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.

In summary, think of the years that you have spent perfecting your craft. Think of all of the knowledge that you have accumulated. Think about how your knowledge can potentially benefit your organization.

How much energy have you invested in acquiring all of this knowledge? How much energy have you invested in learning to present this knowledge so that you can make a real difference? My hope is that by making a small investment in learning how to influence up, you can make a large, positive difference for the future of your organization—and the future of your career.

For greater detail see, “Effectively Influencing Up”in Leading Organizational Learning, Goldsmith, Morgan and Ogg eds., Jossey-Bass, 2004.

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