When you want to influence up

Being in the middle has its challenges. You have responsibilities to listen, coach and manage performance of your team who reports to you. You also have expectations from your manager of you and your team. Sometimes, these become out of alignment. Sometimes, what your boss wants is not what your team agrees with (or yourself) and you’re stuck in the middle.

When your boss directs the team to move in a certain direction but the team doesn’t want to go, what do you do?

First, examine your own thoughts about the situation. How do you feel about it? If you agree with your manager, present the “why” behind the decision. Your team deserves more than a “because he said so” answer. Oftentimes, there could be politics or other initiatives that the team may not be aware of and it can be appropriate to share some of this context with them.

If you do not agree with your manager, this can sometimes feel awkward. If your organization is hierarchical in nature, it can feel even more awkward. It is much easier to say nothing — to just agree with your manager and execute what you feel is wrong. I have always felt that I am on the payroll for my expert opinion and experience. I could be wrong but voicing what I think should be a part of my expectations.

The problem with not saying anything is bad feelings can develop and fester. Your relationship can suffer with your manager. If you don’t speak up, will you do the best job you can if you disagree with the direction? There are ways to politely and professionally disagree to influence up.

  1. Is this a hill you want to die on? This is my mother’s go-to question for me when I present a conflict I am having at work. Not everything you disagree with needs to be challenged. If it is small, consider letting it go. If it is more about tactics (how) and not about strategy (what and why), definitely consider letting it go. There is usually more than one way to accomplish something.
  2. Gauge how important this is to your manager. If this is a “hill” for your manager, consider letting it go. I have found over my career that when I ask questions and a manager becomes a little frustrated, usually that person will express the importance or significance to her. In that case, I usually try it their way and reserve judgment.
  3. Ask questions; don’t make statements. While this may seem like Psychology 101, I am always amazed by people who come out guns blazing with statement after statement. “You, you, you” or “We don’t agree…” If you ask questions to understand, both parties can walk away with a different understanding. Asking questions can be disarming and lead to a dialogue. If it is an emotional topic, I pose these questions: “May I offer a suggestion?” “I have a different way I have been thinking about it. Can I share it with you?”
  4. Remove emotion. Some situations can be emotional. Especially now, I find that people are even more tied to their work. It can be the one place they derive some fulfillment if they are not able to help their parents, coach little league or volunteer as they used to. Back to Psychology class, a simple “I understand” or “I hear what you are saying”, goes a long way to make someone feel better. Staying calm while someone is railing is essential. It is okay to get out of the situation and say you have another meeting but you’d be happy to pick this up later. Time to cool off can help.
  5. Communicate how important this is to you. If this is a “hill” for you, share why this approach or idea is so significant for you…and the business! For you to persuade a manager to change his thinking, share the benefit beyond just yourself.
  6. Paint a picture. Portray a vision of what your idea will do for the team, company, community, and/or your manager. What will the outcome look like? Paint visual pictures instead of speaking in abstract thoughts. Use data. Nothing speaks the truth and can get people’s attention like data. Data can be used to paint a bad current state or a rosy future state depending on your objectives. A bad current state makes the case for what will happen if we don’t act. A solid future state communicates the opposite — the positive impact if we take action.
  7. Ask for a trial run. If you are not convincing your manager of your point of view, ask for a trial run. One time in my career, I strongly believed we needed a new team to look at internal communications and I wanted to head it up. I went to the COO and asked for “seed money” to try this out. If after 6 months, we didn’t yield some value, I would go back to my original position. This may sound like a bad infomercial where we will give you your money back, but I enjoyed great success as a result of this negotiation.

There are many ways to influence. The first is to determine if it is worth it to make the case. If it is important to you, proceed with facts, leave out emotion and make your case professionally.

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