Effectively Influencing Decision Makers
“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
Peter Drucker has written extensively about the impact of the knowledge worker in modern organizations. Knowledge workers can be defined as people who know more about what they are doing than their managers do. Many knowledge workers have years of education and experience in training for their positions, yet they have almost no training in how to effectively influence decision makers.
As Peter Drucker has noted, “The greatest wisdom not applied to action and behavior is meaningless data.”
The eleven guidelines listed below are intended to help you do a better job of influencing decision makers. In some cases, these decision makers may be immediate or upper managers – in other cases they may be peers or cross-organizational colleagues. I hope that you find these suggestions to be useful in helping you convert your good ideas into meaningful action!
- Every decision that impacts 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.
As simple and obvious as this statement may seem, I am amazed at how few (otherwise intelligent) people ever deeply ‘get’ this point. When your child comes home from school and complains, “It’s not fair! The teacher gave me a ‘C’ and I really deserved an ‘A’! We, as parents, should say, “Welcome to the real world, kid! In life you have to accept the fact that decision-makers make decisions – and that you are not always the decision maker.” 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 because ‘life isn’t fair’ – we become more effective in influencing others and making a positive difference. We also become happier!
- 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! Any good salesperson takes responsibility for achieving results. 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. Former Harvard Professor Chris Argyris pointed out how “upward feedback” often turns into “upward buck-passing”. We can become “disempowered” when we focus on what others have done to make things wrong and not what we can do to make things right.
If more time were spent on developing our ability to present ideas, and less time were spent on blaming others for not buying our ideas, a lot more might get accomplished.
A key part of the influence process involves the education of decision makers.
To again quote Drucker, “The person of knowledge has always been expected to take responsibility for being understood. It is barbarian arrogance to assume that the layman can or should make the effort to understand the specialist.”
The effective influencer needs to be a good teacher. Good teachers realize the communicating knowledge is often a greater challenge than possessing knowledge.
- Focus on contribution to the larger good – and the needs of the decision maker – 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 upward influencers relate to the larger needs of the organization, not just to the needs of their unit or team.
When influencing decision makers, focus on the impact of your suggestion on the overall corporation. In most cases the needs of the unit and the needs of the corporation are directly connected. In some cases they are not. Don’t assume that executives can automatically “make the connection” between the benefit to your unit and the benefit to the larger corporation.
- Strive to win the “big battles” – don’t waste your energy and “psychological capital” on trivial points.
Executive’s time is very limited. Do a thorough analysis of ideas before “challenging the system”. Don’t waste time on issues that will only have a negligible impact on results. 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. People become more annoyed with us for having to be “right” on trivia than our need to be right on important business points. 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.
- 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. Acknowledge the fact that something else may have to be sacrificed in order to have your idea implemented.
By getting ready for a realistic discussion of costs, you can “prepare for objections” to your idea before they occur. You can acknowledge the sacrifice that someone else may have to make and point out how the benefits of your plan may outweigh the costs.
- “Challenge up” on issues involving ethics or integrity – never remain silent on ethics violations.
Enron, WorldCom, and other organizations have dramatically pointed out how ethics violations can destroy even the most valuable companies. The best of corporations can be severely damaged by only one violation of corporate integrity. Hopefully, 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. This action needs to be taken for the ultimate benefit of your company, your customers, your co-workers and yourself.
When challenging up try not to assume that management has intentionally requested you to do something wrong. In some cases, a seemingly inappropriate request may merely be the result of a misunderstandings or poor communication. Try to present your case in a manner that is intended to be helpful, not judgmental.
- Realize that powerful people are just as “human” as you are – don’t say, “I am amazedthat 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. Is there anything in the history of the human species that indicates when people achieve high levels of status, power, and money they become completely “wise” and “logical”? How many times have we thought, “I would assume someone at this level…” followed by “should know what is happening”, “should be more logical”, “wouldn’t make that kind of mistake”, or “would never engage in such inappropriate behavior”?
Even the best of leaders are human. We all make mistakes. When your managers make mistakes, focus more on helping them than judging them.