“The great majority of people tend to focus downward. They are occupied with efforts rather than results. They worry over what the organization and their superiors ‘owe’ them and should do for them. And they are conscious above all of the authority they ‘should have.’ As a result they render themselves ineffectual.”—Peter Drucker
You can make a positive difference, even when you do not have direct line authority.
Here are 11 guidelines that will help you do a better job of influencing decision-makers, whether these decision-makers are immediate or upper managers, peers or cross-organizational colleagues.
1. Accept the Facts: Every decision that affects our lives will be made by the person who has the power to make that decision, not the “right” person or the “smartest” person or the “best” person. Make peace with this fact. Once we make peace with the fact that the people who have the power to make the decisions always make the decisions and we get over whining that “life isn’t fair,” we become more effective in influencing others and making a positive difference. We also become happier.
2. Realize You Must Sell Your Ideas. When presenting ideas to decision-makers, realize that it is your responsibility to sell, not their responsibility to buy. In many ways, influencing ultimate decision-makers is similar to selling products or services to external customers. They don’t have to buy—you have to sell. No one is impressed with salespeople who blame their customers for not buying their products. 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. A key part of the influence process involves the education of decision-makers. The effective influencer needs to be a good teacher.
3. Focus on contribution to the larger good—not just the achievement of your objectives. 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, not to their own needs. In the same way, effective influencers relate to the larger needs of the organization, not just to the needs of their unit or team.
4. Strive to win the big battles. Don’t waste your energy and psychological capital on trivial points. Executives’ time is very limited. Do a thorough analysis of ideas before challenging the system. 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 non-business arguments on things like restaurants, sports teams, or cars. 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.
5. 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.
6. “Challenge up” on issues involving ethics or integrity—never remain silent on ethics violations. The best of corporations can be severely damaged by only one violation of corporate integrity. I hope you will never be asked to do anything by the management of your corporation that represents a violation of corporate ethics. If you are, refuse to do it and immediately let upper management know of your concerns. Try to present your case in a manner that is intended to be helpful, not judgmental.
7. Realize that powerful people also make mistakes. Don’t say, “I am amazed that someone at this level…” It is realistic to expect decision-makers to be competent; it is unrealistic to expect them to be anything other than normal humans. Even the best of leaders are human. We all make mistakes. When your managers make mistakes, focus more on helping them than judging them.
8. Don’t be disrespectful. Treat decision-makers with the same courtesy that you would treat customers. While it is important to avoid kissing up to decision-makers, it is just as important to avoid the opposite reaction. Before speaking, it is generally good to ask one question from four perspectives. “Will this comment help 1) our company 2) our customers 3) the person I am talking to, and 4) the person I am talking about?” If the answers are no, no, no, and no, don’t say it!
9. Support the final decision. Don’t tell direct reports, “They made me tell you.” Assuming that the final decision of the organization is not immoral, illegal, or unethical, go out and try to make it work. Managers who consistently say, “They told me to tell you” to co-workers are seen as messengers, not leaders. Treat decision-makers the same way that you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed. If you stab your boss in the back in front of your direct reports, what are you teaching them to do when they disagree with you?
10. 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: making a positive difference for the organization. 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.
11. Focus on the future—let go of the past. One of the most important behaviors to avoid is whining about the past. Have you ever managed someone who incessantly whined about how bad things are? Nobody wins. Successful people love getting ideas aimed at helping them achieve their goals for the future. By focusing on the future, you can concentrate on what can be achieved tomorrow, not what was not achieved yesterday.
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 to decision-makers so that you can make a real difference? My hope is that by making a small investment in learning to influence decision-makers, you can make a large, positive difference for the future of your organization.