How to influence your boss (or anyone else senior to you)

How should you talk so that your seniors listen? Are you having ‌conversations with someone higher up in the hierarchy and want to get them to take action? Following the five steps next time you talk to a manager will help you to influence upwards. 

1. Choose the right time

Find a moment when they are going to be most able to say ‘yes’. This means they need to have the resources to give you what you want, and the time to listen. There’s no point going to see a boss about a pay rise when their budget is all used up for the year. And there’s also no point having a conversation about a new project when everyone is flat out, working every hour, on the current projects and will be for the next month or so. Spotting the right time to have these conversations will remove your frustration at your boss having to say no due to budgetary constraints or some other lack of resources. 

And making sure that you approach them to talk when they have the time for you, rather than being flat out meeting a deadline or just about to go home, will also increase your chances that they are in a good mood and that they listen properly, consider fairly, and say yes. 

2. Prepare well

You want your first chance to put your proposal to them to go well, and you can make this more likely by preparing. You should speak to them only once you’re clear on what you want, why it’s a reasonable request, and if possible, have evidence to justify your proposal. For example, if it’s a salary increase you’re looking for, find evidence that others in your position are paid that amount. If it’s permission to move forward with a project, present them with a top-line cost-benefit analysis of the outlay required and the benefits it’s likely to bring. 

3. Appeal to emotion

Juniors who combine rational information with niceness, a good story, or who approach a boss with whom they already have a good relationship are more likely to receive a yes, too. Why? Because people want to say yes to people that they like, or who are nice to them. This goes for bosses, too. It’s much harder to say no to someone who’s smiling, who’s paid you a compliment, or who you have a great working relationship with. 

4. But remove negativity 

Trying to influence upward is difficult because, well, you don’t have a huge amount of power in the situation. That means that, fairly frequently, you are likely to be told no. Learning to react to this in a calm, positive way can be really beneficial, building your goodwill with your manager and portraying you as someone who’s sensible and level-headed. Even if you feel sad or furious at having been told no, don’t voice a strong reaction. It’s fine to say you’re sad, or frustrated, but remain calm as you do so and try one more time to persuade, using your niceness or evidence. And if that doesn’t work, thank the person for their time and walk away. There is no benefit at all in escalating this into an argument – then your boss is more likely to become entrenched in their view and you’re less likely to receive a future ‘yes’. It may be worth asking, however, what might change their mind. 

5. Arrange to follow up… and then do it

If you received a yes, great! Find out in the moment when you should follow up and how to keep the momentum going. If at all possible, avoid leaving the next step in your boss’ hands as you probably have more capacity, and enthusiasm, to move it forward. If it really needs to be their next step, ask if there’s anything you can do to help.

If you received a no, leave it a few days so that the immediate disappointment or frustration of the moment clears, and then plan your next step. If you don’t plan to drop it and want to try to continue to move forward, some tactics to look at are to compile better evidence, work on improving your relationship with your boss, get other senior stakeholders to back your idea (without your boss feeling as though you’ve gone around them) and see if there is a way to make your proposal align more closely to either the strategy or your manager’s personal aims and intentions. 

As can be seen above, getting better at upward management can really help you to gain influence, get what you want, but also engage with your boss in a way that’s more satisfying and intentional for both of you. You will also likely feel more positively about your firm and that they take you seriously and are prepared to listen to you if you can do this work before you attempt an important upward influence attempt.