Four Keys to Influencing Up the Org Chart

(Getting the boss’s attention when you know something you wish they did too)

I led a training session recently for a group of production and operations supervisors from a mid-size global firm. Our topic for the day was teams and trust, and our focus was on optimal functioning for work teams that they managed. They described, however, a scenario that is all too familiar: their new leader (less than a year) was clueless about how to run the operation. Hired for his lean manufacturing experience, he suggested skipping over some critical aspects of the operation to save time. Based on these “efficiencies” he suggested the product would be defective, even unsafe, and would require hours of rework.

For nearly a year these supervisors, with an average tenure of 15 years, had tried to explain the process to their boss. He took notes, smiled and nodded as though he was in agreement, then went away and disregarded not just their advice and experience, but the scientific facts of the process.

We had a long discussion about how they could influence the boss to do the right thing, to listen to them and heed their warnings. They were frustrated and disillusioned. Some of their peers had already left the organization, taking with them decades of experience. We needed to figure out a way to stop the exodus of talent and have a meaningful impact up the organizational chart.

Whether we want to share a new idea or fix a broken process, influencing up the organization chart is an important skill for everyone in the chain of command.

The best managers, of course, want to hear from people – they welcome new ideas, challenges to the process, and suggestions for adopting technology to make work easier, cheaper, or faster. But not all bosses are open to others’ ideas.

I’m reading Henry Cloud’s book Necessary Endings. He describes three kinds of people that we encounter in life:

  • Wise
  • Foolish
  • Evil

If you’ve ever read the Old Testament book of Proverbs, these designations will be pretty familiar to you. For instance, Proverbs 3:35 says, “The wise inherit honor, but fools get only shame.” Proverbs 6 talks about the evil person who “plots evil with deceit in his heart—he always stirs up conflict.”

Influencing a wise boss is easy, because they are open to feedback, want to learn, and don’t get defensive when you challenge their ideas. The wise person has understanding and discernment, an ability to take in information and objectively and skillfully accept the facts without feeling challenged.

A foolish boss listens, but takes not action. They nod and smile, but lack the motivation, resolve, or interest to make things better. They may be prideful or lacking in judgment. The foolish person is often insecure, which leads them to hoard information and shut down any ideas that did not originate with them.

The evil person covets control and power, acting like a puppet-master to direct the outcomes that put them at an advantage over others. They are untrustworthy, deceptive and, often, disagreeable. They may tell you what you want to hear, but will use the information to put you in your place later. Though rare, bosses like this exist – I know from experience!

Whether you want to upward-influence a wise, foolish, or evil boss, there are some keys to help you succeed:

Know Your Stuff. The best way to influence others is to be seen as an expert. Subject-matter expertise opens many doors and allows you to be an internal consultant. Don’t settle on past knowledge – actively pursue professional development and educate yourself on new technologies and trends in your field.

The wise manager will readily accept your insights and suggestions because they trust your experience and know-how. Do your homework, though, since a really wise person may probe to get the full picture.

The foolish manager will require some careful planning. Since they resist influence due to their self-protective nature, you will need a heavy dose of humility to sell the idea as theirs. They may feel threatened by your expertise, so you have to be careful that your know-how doesn’t come across as know-it-all.

Learn to read people. Emotional intelligence is extremely important in trying to upward-influence. Learn to read social cues and understand personalities and what motivates the person you want to influence. You don’t have to give someone a formal assessment to get insight into what makes them tick. Knowing motivations is perhaps the most useful awareness when it comes to influencing.

Take a look at their work space and listen to what they talk about. Is it all work and know play? Is it centered on family, friends and relationships? How do they learn best – reading, hearing, or hands-on?

We sometimes use our own preferences when we’re trying to influence others, which is not very effective. Get to know the person you want to influence and you’ll be seen as credible and trustworthy. Your wise boss will appreciate your insights, the foolish boss will probably be surprised you understand them so well, and the evil manager may watch you a little more closely to see if you have ulterior motives.

Choose your words carefully. Once you’re able to read people you can much more easily decide how to talk with them. Words are important, as is the way you deliver them.

Our attitude impacts the words we use and the way we say them. If we are angry, we’ll sound it. If we’re fearful of how the other person will react, we’ll sound timid and unsure.

If you have done your homework to become a subject matter expert, and have some insights into what motivates the person you want to influence, you can come across as confident and smart. Make a case for your idea or suggestion, always keeping in mind the point of view of the other person. Use terms that make sense to them, speak to what is important to them (quality, the bottom line, customer service, etc.). Clearly show how your idea will help achieve their goals. Make your pitch compelling, interesting, factual, and wise. Don’t make it an information dump, but do give some materials and bullet points that they can refer back to later.

Be patient and persistent. This last key is the hardest one to apply. When we have an idea or suggestion, especially when we see an urgent need to change the current course, we find it hard to wait patiently for the boss to weigh the merits of your case. They may not have the same level of pain or concern as you.

Give them time to consider, realizing that they probably have greater insight into the big picture and may need to do their own upward-influencing to get the ear (and budget) of their boss.

Don’t dump and run! Follow up within a week after the initial conversation, possibly adding some additional information, answering questions, and asking when they think a decision will be made. Don’t be a pest, and accept their decision graciously.

What if They Don’t Change Their Mind?

You may do a great job of presenting your case but still not influence your boss to adopt your suggestion or change their mind. Ask them for some feedback so that you can understand their thinking and decision-making process. They may or may not have a good reason for saying no, but their response may give you insights that will help you in the future.

You have a choice whether to accept their decision and move on, determine to try again with a different tactic, or decide to move on because of the critical consequences you see for not changing the current course. Just as a salesperson has to make a lot of presentations before they get a buyer, someone who wants to influence upwardly must be OK with a little rejection.

Influence is the primary task of leadership, and when we are able to influence up the organizational chart we show that leadership can happen at any level and go in any direction. It takes skill to influence others, since we are breaking them out of a particular way of thinking. Our minds are not easily changed, but when we show our expertise, tap into the other person’s interests, frame our case well, and are persistent and patient, we greatly improve the odds of winning someone over to our way of thinking.

Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, Second Edition (Paperback)

How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age