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.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Collins Business Essentials)

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

How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age

Rethinking Job Descriptions

A Useful Tool Gone Bad?

There’s little doubt that some sort of job description is important. They help organizations articulate the purpose of a position and how the work is to be accomplished. They spell out the competencies, experience, and other requirements necessary to succeed, and give the person doing that job a sense of what they should be focusing on.

For some, a job description identifies the boundaries of a position. Individuals like to know what they should and should not do, and like to be able to say, “it’s not my job.” Employers, of course, have gotten around this boxing in by adding the ubiquitous phrase, “and other duties as assigned.”

Thinking Upside Down – Person First, Then Description

But what if employers flipped job descriptions on their heads? What if, instead of using these expedient documents to create an exhaustive list of tasks, duties and responsibilities, job descriptions became generalized documents that allow for interpretation based on individual strengths and organizational needs?

Human Resources professionals like to create standardized, documented procedures to reduce variability and mitigate risk. That way we can keep people accountable and easily address deviance from the norm through our structured disciplinary processes.

But this obsession with conformity and repeatability has a serious negative consequence: it squashes the creativity and resourcefulness of employees and fails to tap into their unique strengths and interests.

When we attempt to turn an individual into a walking embodiment of their job description, we lose the advantage of the whole person. The whole person may not be a perfect fit for the job description, but if we exchange rigidity with flexibility, the whole person will rise to the occasion and surpass any goals of a job description.

It’s a scary thing to let go of structure. We like to predict outcomes by identifying the right inputs. The good news is we don’t have to completely eliminate structure to create a culture where people are allowed to apply a greater percentage of their abilities, ideas, and strengths.

As our workplaces evolve and adapt to new realities, new understandings, new ways of getting things done, employers have to tap into the vast reserves of wisdom, innovation, and productivity that go to waste every day because we have limited people through our processes and practices.

Bouncing Back (and Beyond): The Emotional Side of Economic Recovery for Employees

Cover of "Psychological Capital: Developi...

Cover via Amazon

As the economy begins its slow climb out of the pit of recession, workplaces have a lot of messes to clean up, especially the emotional debris caused by the economic tsunami the washed over the global marketplace these past 2-3 years. Companies slashed workforces and raised performance expectations in an attempt to ride out the storm, some barely keeping their heads above water. But what was the emotional toll and what do organizations need to do to help employees bounce back to pre-crisis levels of wellbeing?

Even before the recession was in full swing, when the pundits were still debating what title to put on the economic crisis that was beginning to raise its ugly head, a study by Towers Watson showed that “nearly half of U.S. employers say stress caused by working long hours is affecting business performance.”  Yet only about 5% were trying to do anything about it. And as the economic crisis became a beast of recession, one can only imagine that things didn’t improve!

It’s important for employers to consider what their employees have been through these past three years.  Did they face foreclosure? Did a spouse lose a job? Did they have to take on a second job just to make ends meet? Were there constant threats of layoffs and spending freezes and drastic cost-cutting measures that made it difficult for them to do their jobs? And did you keep giving them more work to do because you were feeling the stress of trying to keep the business afloat as you faced your own financial tsunami?

The good news is that we are resilient.

There are some practical steps employers can take to help employees bounce back, and hopefully go beyond where they were prior to the crisis.

Empathize. Put yourself in their shoes and gain some understanding of the stress they’ve faced. Very few individuals have come through the recession without being impacted in some way. Talk to your employees about what they’ve experienced and what their level of optimism is for the future. Find some common ground and let them see you as “real.”

Re-establish Trust. Employees may distrust employers, especially if they feel they have been treated unfairly. If you had to make drastic cuts and reduce hours, expenditures and support, talk with employees about priorities as you can begin loosening up the purse strings. Ask them for input on what essential resources are needed and how they might be funded. Collaborate with them and empower them to have some control over their work.

Give them Hope. Share with them how they fit into the organization’s future. Consider courses or conferences that may build their skills. Share your dreams for the future of the enterprise and how you see them being a part of the future success of the organization. Give them insight into exciting developments or plans. Don’t give false hope, however, or you’ll erode trust quickly.

Sustain their Wellbeing. Employee engagement grows as employers focus on initiatives that help employees find meaning in their work, balance all aspects of their lives, and minimize their stress. Gallup identifies “Five Essential Elements” of Wellbeing as Career, Social, Financial, Physical, and Community. What can you do as an employer to contribute to these areas of wellbeing so that your staff is energized, engaged and ready to help you succeed?

If you really want to make the most of the economic recovery, the key as an employer is to consider the emotional recovery of your employees. According to professor Fred Luthans & his colleagues (Psychological Capital, 2007),

“Today’s organizational participants need to not only survive, cope, and recover, but also to thrive and flourish through the inevitable difficulties and uncertainties that they face and to do so faster than their competition.”

They describe a process of “proactive resiliency” that helps individuals and organizations “overcome, steer through, bounce back, and reach out to pursue new knowledge and experiences, deeper relationships with others, and finding meaning in life.”

Employers are encouraged to reflect on adversities and setbacks and use them as a springboard for growth and development. Celebrate together that you’ve gotten through the difficulties and are now ready to take on the future together. This process can ultimately improve performance and lead to net gains for your business. Employees will gain job satisfaction and increase engagement as hope, trust and confidence create a positive spiral of increased resiliency.