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.

When you start to take things personally

One of the most difficult lessons I have learned in my career is how not to take every comment, action or criticism personally. I am a strong person who has confidence but there have been times when some feedback has felt unfair or I beat up on myself because I was not perfect. (More on the love/hate with perfectionism in a future post!)

“Work and personal don’t mix. Feedback is a gift. A businessperson should have thick skin. Leave your emotions at the door. Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. And, don’t take things too personally!”

Words of wisdom we have all heard and they sound logical. Yes! This is how we should act! However, most of us are committed to quality work. We take pride in what we do and we are invested in the outcome, which includes what people think about us.

When I was younger, one of my mentors told me it was a waste of time to spend too much energy on how others feel about us because we can’t control how they feel; we can only control how we feel.

Intellectually, this makes sense. Practically, it is tough to not think about how did someone take what I said? Did that leader like what I did? How am I performing? Am I liked or just tolerated? And, my personal favorite, how do I compare to my peers? Is he better than me?

All of these thoughts are normal human behavior but they can become all-consuming and translate into a “I am having a bad day” all the way to “I need to find another job.” We can carry these feelings to our homes especially in these times when our offices are mere steps from our personal interactions in the kitchen.

Here are my tips for taking a breath and not taking comments, actions and criticism as a personal attack.

1: Focus on You. Instead of focusing on what someone tells you or how you may be treated unfairly, focus on what you think of yourself and your efforts. Do you feel good about what you achieved? If not, then examine what you could have done better and do that the next time. Are you satisfied with the results? Do you like what you are doing? How can you find joy in your work? Instead of seeking approval from others, we should strive for self-fulfillment and work on how we feel about our performance first. When we feel good, that self-confidence shines through to others.

2: Walk in another skin. In one of my favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus tells his daughter that we don’t really know someone until we have jumped in their skin and walked around in it for a while. If someone criticizes you or even snaps at you, just remember it may not be about you at all. If we realize that people react based on the many things happening in their lives, we save ourselves lots of time spent on complaining or getting upset. Some people can compartmentalize and some cannot. Think about how you react to things. Is it all about the person or is it just a tiny bit about the argument you had this morning with your significant other, the fact that you can’t see your family now or the dog is driving you nuts?

3: Show compassion. I truly believe this is a skill that can be learned because I am living proof. I have spent the last year focused on compassion. I have it posted on my bulletin board and I have mantras I recite every morning saved as reminders in my phone. It has saved my mood, my family life, and my overall well-being. Instead of thinking the worst, have compassion for what the other person may be going through. There could be other motivations for why they may appear critical. Maybe they are afraid of losing their job or maybe they are experiencing health issues. Keeping compassion front and center has helped me let things go and not take certain actions personally, which only helps me (and everyone around me)!

4: Breathe. Simple and effective. When we hear something that we think is personal, stop and don’t react for five seconds. Take a quick, deep breath. Remember you, what it’s like to walk in their skin and practice compassion. Trust me. This will help you focus on what matters and not take things personally.

Making Progress? If Not, Be Worried About Your Employees

progressI am always behind in my reading. I try to stay up but then I fall back. I was reading a short article in Harvard Business Review’s Reinvent January/February issuetoday and I was so struck by one “breakthrough idea” I read that literally a light bulb appeared above my head.

What really motivates workers….recognition? Try again. Incentives? Mmmm…they are important but not quite. It’s progress! And, when researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer asked leaders what they thought, all said recognition was first and progress was dead last.

I feel like shouting this from the mountaintops. Amend every management course. PROGRESS! Yes! Don’t we feel frustrated when action isn’t taken? Or, politics gets in the way? Or, cumbersome approval processes prevent us from moving forward? Yes. This all affects our engagement levels and motivation because our ability to succeed, contribute and create value is inhibited.

So, as managers, and leaders especially, to improve employee engagement and retain high potential staff members, ensure that progress is being made and obstacles to progress are removed immediately.

Ensuring progress means:

  • Breaking down silos
  • Communicating frequently
  • Providing tools and technology access
  • Setting achievable goals
  • Fostering creativity
  • Securing resources
  • Involving your people in decisions

These sound so easy but they can be difficult depending on culture. But, I can’t think of a more important charter for a leader than being able to retain top talent while moving the ship forward in the right direction.

Do We Sell or Tell To Get Action?

take.action.tour_Social is here but is it driving people to action? We have spent decades researching and discovering how to communicate, motivate and collaborate with people. We’ve studied generational and cultural differences; methods and techniques; channel and venues. We pour over statistics to make informed decisions. But, is any of this helping us get people to read or listen? I know there are many of you who would have statistics to tell me “yes”!

I learned a long time ago that people pay attention to communications from the top. As flat as we’d like to be, if my manager or anyone in my chain sends me an email, text, IM or blog, I will read it. But, now we have social experts telling us that peer review and peer opinion drive eye-catching interest and translate into action. That we listen to and trust our peers more than our “superiors”. I feel that is true but maybe in a different context.

I personally believe that to motivate different behavior, a message from my manager will motivate me to change but so will a message from a trusted colleague IFthat message has a story I can relate to and a result that is impactful enough. From the top, it’s enough to TELL me what is expected. From my peers, it’s all about SELLing me to get me to change.

Imagine if the tell and sell could be combined in a communication strategy – managers AND peers? I think that would double your success for changing behavior, which is the intended result of most communication strategies.

Where Does the Corporate University Fit in?

4handsWhen I started my career in the Corporate Communication field more than 15 years ago, the hot debate was how can Corporate Communication and Human Resources, namely Training & Development, work together. Each function has a communication element to it. Obviously, Corporate Communication’s sole purpose is to communicate with the media, investor community, customers and, of course, employees. It was that employee communication arena that led to some turf wars back in the day. As I migrated into the Training & Development field, the attention turned to this newly formed function called Knowledge Management.

Today, there is confusion over how Corporate Universities and Knowledge Management & Collaboration functions interact. Where is the line drawn? Does KM “own” social networking or does that it better into a university model? Are we on the brink of another turf war or already in it?

Maybe. I see companies struggling with defining roles in this area. Learning & Development professionals attend conferences from ASTD and ISPI and learn all about how they should leverage social collaboration tools to further learning efforts. Knowledge Management professionals attend KM World and Gartner conferences to learn how they should leverage social collaboration tools to further knowledge sharing efforts.

Who’s right? They both are. I would argue that corporate universities should not “own” the administration or governance behind collaboration tools. While they can be used for learning purposes, they are also used for sharing and finding knowledge and information and increasing efficiencies in work processes…something much more aligned to the Knowledge Management function.

Some companies combine the KM and L & D functions to ensure alignment; however, that may or may not be necessary. Regardless, the silo that can exist between these two areas must be torn down and real conversations about where certain information gets stored (team workspaces, university website or other content management system) plus who will administer social networking and collaboration must be defined together.

In my opinion, corporate universities need to be the internal customers of the Knowledge Management team and consumers of this technology for their purposes…perhaps even champions or early adopters. These two groups need to clearly define roles, responsibilities and accountabilities accordingly. Otherwise, you could have two teams working on the same initiative in a vacuum, which leads to more turf wars!

Should Knowledge Management be Defined Consistently?

This is a tough question to answer and my response may be met with some criticism. To gain a firm foothold in business…the answer should be yes. We should pick a direction and vision and go with it. That is what we SHOULD do but that may not be the best strategy.

I have held two “defined” Knowledge Management (KM) positions in my career (after spending 10 years in Training & Development) and while they had similarities, there were definite differences. I think KM is whatever the organization needs it to be.

Now, this is frustrating for KM and business leaders because we all can’t give the same elevator speech about what we do. Some may argue, if we can’t define ourselves as an industry, aren’t we vulnerable to cuts in a downturn? Not necessarily…I think by not having a consistent definition, we allow ourselves flexibility. And, in times like these, I believe that’s an important attribute to have.

As a KM Practitioner, under the KM umbrella, I have managed, at various times, the following activities:


Company Intranet / Web site; Document Management Technology, Processes and Policies; Information Security Policies; Records Management; SharePoint Technology Implementation and Support


Social Media (Blogs, Microblogs, Wikis, RSS Feeds, Social Bookmarking, etc.); Innovation and Idea Sharing; Communities of Practice; Best-Practice Sharing


Internal Employee Communication; PR and Marketing; IM, Email, Blogs and other Communication Technology Tools


Process Improvement; Performance Management; Strategic Planning; Learning & Development

So, is KM the “Miscellaneous” in an organization’s org chart? Sometimes yes; sometimes no. And, we, as KM Practitioners, need to embrace the ambiguity. Isn’t our tolerance for the “gray” and love of diversity the reason we choose this amorphous field?