Influencing up is a step above managing up, and it can have a big impact. Here are four ways to do it.
Most people know how important it is to manage up. It takes day-to-day effort to successfully navigate the working relationship with a direct boss. But influencing up can be just as important.
Influencing up involves directly influencing the decision-making of leaders one or more levels higher than your boss. It requires a sharp understanding of the needs and wants of high-level leadership, and the ability to bridge the gap between your technical expertise and their strategic priorities.
I have a client, Anna, who is particularly gifted at influencing up. Recently, she had the opportunity to argue the case for increasing the headcount of her department to complete a high-profile project. It was a particularly challenging task, as her company is in a strict hiring freeze.
Anna, her direct boss, and a peer prepared an information-packed presentation for a leader with decision-making power. Five minutes in, the leader interrupted Anna’s boss with a question unrelated to the current slide. Anna’s boss froze. Anna asked if she could reply–she wanted to be sensitive to her boss and not overstep his authority. Her boss enthusiastically gave her the floor. Anna answered the question succinctly and clearly. When Anna’s boss tried to steer the conversation back to the presentation, the executive interrupted again, asking to dig deeper into a topic area. Anna again successfully responded. Later, the executive challenged a point of data the team presented. Anna respectfully pushed back, providing a story that clarified the data. By the end of the presentation, the leader allowed the team to hire two additional people–double their original request.
When Anna and I discussed the event, she pinpointed the four ways she successfully influenced up:
1. Tell a story.
Anna has a strong technical background. Often, people with technical backgrounds are so passionate about their work that they get lost in the weeds with technical detail that overwhelms their audience. Instead, Anna used storytelling to connect the data to the big picture, including just enough detail to support the why. The executive didn’t need to hear every step of how Anna’s team came to their conclusions. He needed a summary that supported the team’s expert recommendation. Anna was able to pivot from the slides and provide that in the moment.
2. Be responsive.
Anna listened intently to the leader’s questions and answered exactly what was asked. If she didn’t understand something, she asked for clarification. Often, when people don’t understand a question (or don’t know the answer), they detour from the original question. They fear that asking for clarification or admitting they don’t know something would make them look unknowledgeable. Instead, this approach backfires. The question-asker is frustrated–not only is their question unanswered, they feel ignored, too.
When a question anticipated a topic that would come up later in the presentation, Anna didn’t ask the leader to wait–she answered on the spot. This validated the leader’s concerns and built trust.
3. Tailor your messaging.
I tell my clients that when influencing up, it helps to tailor messaging to the three essential things executive-level leaders care about:
- How the company can make more money (grow market share, gain more customers, increase profit margins);
- How the company can save money (reduce waste, get more out of budgets, lower expenses);
- How the company can increase efficiency (save time, streamline, create better processes).
Every issue can bounce back to one or more of these areas. If you know which area connects most directly with a leader, your message can land with even more influence. For example, a CFO may care most about areas one and two, while a CTO may care about area three. Anna translated her team’s concerns to the area their leader cared most about, bridging the gap between his priorities and her team’s urgency.
4. Respond with solid evidence and emotional intelligence.
When the leader disagreed with the team, Anna pushed back respectfully. She remained emotionally neutral and used facts–not judgments or opinions–to argue the business case for her team’s request. Often, people fear that disagreeing will damage a relationship with a superior. But if done with respect and backed by facts, disagreement can be a crucial part of influencing up.
Influencing up can provide an opportunity for big-picture, strategic impact that can boost your career. Remember to use storytelling to support data, be responsive, prioritize leadership’s priorities, and not back away from respectful disagreement.
My book, Saving Face illustrates how we can honor face to create positive first impressions, avoid causing others to lose face, and, most importantly, help others save face to build trust and lasting relationships inside and outside the workplace.