How to Influence Upwards

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Ever had a sleepless night because you had a thought of influencing the really Big Bosses upstairs, and agonized about the prospect?

Complexity, competition and globalisation are giving the challenge of power and authority in organisations new nooks and cranny’s.

Sure, you may also be a Boss, but your title alone does not guarantee that you get the people under or around you to perform, let alone those above you. Upwards implies that the people you want to influence control more resources than you and that their decisions (or absence thereof) are critical to your success. Players at this level are exposed to lots of noise and little time so impact at this level is critical.

Personal influence is an essential skill if you need to command attention, action or changed decisions, especially from above.

Influence is, simply put, the power to change, sway, enthuse or affect others’ actions, decisions, opinions or thinking.

This is less daunting if you have authority over others. But what if they have power over you? I have met many leaders who comfortably step into engaging those under or even next to them who literally block up and disrupt if they have to achieve the same result upwards.

To maximize your personal influence upwards, you’ll want to evaluate your own style of influencing upwards. What is your predisposition toward authority? What went wrong between you and authority figures in the past? What is your default reaction? What tactics do you use most? What could you do differently? How do you get them to hear you?

We have all wrestled with power somewhere in our lives and most of us have experienced the frustrations coupled with organisational bureaucracy and politics.

The result is often negative. We avoid influencing upwards for fear of making career limiting moves. When we do, we sometimes disrupt like teenagers in love.

Some of us go underground in our response to authority and give lip service to imitate compliance while finding ways to attack, control, stereotype, filter, or withdraw from those above us, thinking that this will help us balance our power.

Fact is we all sometimes need genuine interest, support and commitment from the big bosses to affect innovation, sustained effort and resiliency around us.

How can you influence upwards, and move powerful authority figures beyond typical reactions that cut you short, side-steps you and makes you feel unseen and -heard?

The most effective influencers are clear on their purpose and know how to use at least 4 influence approaches shaped around: logic, emotion, strength and flexibility.

The critical success factor for Upward Influence is the ability to understand yourself, your influence purpose, the bosses and their context.

Armed with such wisdom, anyone can find a way to navigate their way upwards.

Off course, you must first be willing to step into your own personal power and have the guts to influence and fail and influence again. The four basic approaches to influencing upwards are:

  1. Logic. Persuasion is about finding a “best solution” based on impersonal facts that are on your side and will only work of the big Bosses already respects your competence and if the issue you want to tackle is non-emotional to them. In such a case know that you will have to present your argument for the best choice of action based on succinct proposals and factual reasons outlining potential stakeholder and organisational benefits, management benefits or both. When persuading Bosses, less is more. Go in well prepared and stick to one or two good reasons that will make sense a level up, with a back-up argument if needed.
  1. Strength. Assertion demonstrates your “gut” energy and results in quick action from the top if you employ it effectively. It implies that you are serious about clear and legitimate needs and expectations which must be heard because it is aligned and relevant to the higher good of the company. This is a style you will engage when the stakes are high. Employing this energy means that you display the ability to voice your expectations, judge the context and pose desirable incentive and undesirable pressures under you direct control that would boost or sanction activity. When influencing upwards, I have learnt that focussing on positive evaluations and incentives will get you further than playing the card of negativity and pressures.
  1. Inspiration. The attracting style generates energy and enthusiasm around a future vision. This will only work effectively if the Bosses already trust and respect you. Highlighting commonalities such as shared values, ideas, hopes and desires is essential to lay a foundation of “we”. The key to success is the ability to paint a compelling picture of the future using positive metaphoric images that will appeal to the upwards context.
  1. Seeking understanding. The bridging style is very powerful and can take time, but the pay-off of building cooperative connections if done effectively is worth it. This style gets bosses to think and act with you. You will have to be willing to disclose, listen at a deep level without judgement and involve the bosses by having your questions planned in advance. The idea is to engage your bosses by figuring out what ideas they might have that supports yours and what blockages there might be that needs to be removed.

They key to effective Upwards Influence is to know when to back down and when to push ahead. This means that you have done your homework and know what matters at the levels above you. Try to position information in a manner that appeal to their interests and needs. Use a combination of pertinent quantitative and qualitative data and keep it short. Present implications and possible solutions and next steps for quick wins and long term sustainability.

If you have insight into effective upward influence, please share it with us.

By Sep Serfontein Consulting Group, South Africa