Office photo. Photo © Samuel Zeller/Unsplash, used with permission.‎

By Marshall Goldsmith (and Gil Dekel).

Employees that are experts in their field are sometimes referred to as ‘Subject Matter Experts’.  Many Subject Matter Experts have years of education and experience, yet they have almost no training in how to effectively influence other people, especially how to influence decision-makers.

In some cases, these decision-makers may be immediate or upper managers. In other cases they may be peers or cross-organisational colleagues.

Every decision that impacts our lives will be made by the person who has the power to make that decision, not the ‘right’ person, the ‘smartest’ person, or the ‘best’ person…

Here are nine suggestions designed to help you influence decision-makers:

In many ways, influencing decision-makers is similar to selling products or services to customers. They don’t have to buy – you have to sell! Any good sales person takes responsibility for achieving results. No one is impressed with sales people who blame their customers for not buying their products.

While the importance of taking responsibility may seem obvious in external sales, a large number of people in 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 is spent on developing our ability to present ideas, and less time is spent on blaming others for not buying our ideas, a lot more might get accomplished.

A key part of the influencing process involves the education of decision-makers. Experts need to take responsibility in making themselves understood by others. They should not assume that the layman should make the effort to understand them.

The effective influencer needs to be a good teacher. Good teachers realise that communicating knowledge is often a greater challenge than possessing knowledge. Focus on education and on communication of your ideas

An effective sales person would never say to a customer, “You need to buy this product, because if you don’t, I won’t achieve my objectives!”

Effective sales people relate to the needs of the buyers, not to their own needs. In the same way effective influencers relate to the bigger picture, the overall needs of the organisation, and 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.

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.

Every organisation 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.

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.

While it is important to avoid “kissing up” to decision-makers, it is just as important to avoid the opposite reaction. A surprising number of middle managers spend hours “trashing” the company and its executives or making destructive comments about co-workers.Before speaking ask four questions about your comment. Ask yourself: Will my comment help:

  • The company?
  • The customers?
  • The person that I am talking to?
  • The person that I am talking about?

If the answers are no, no, no, and no – don’t say it! There is a difference between total honesty and dysfunctional disclosure. It is always important to “challenge up” on integrity issues. It is inappropriate to stab decision-makers in the back.

Managers who consistently say, “They told me to tell you” to co-workers are seen as “messengers”, not as leaders. Even worse, don’t say, “those fools told me to tell you”. By demonstrating our lack of commitment to the final decision we may sabotage the chances that it will be executed.

A simple guideline for communicating difficult decisions is to ask, “How would I want someone to communicate to their people if they were passing down my final decision and they disagreed with me?” Treat decisions-makers in the same way that you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed. For example, if you stab your boss in the back in front of your direct reports, what are you teaching your direct reports to do when they disagree with you?

We can easily become more focused on what others are doing wrong, than how we can make things better. An important guideline in influencing is to always remember your goal – make a positive difference for the organisations.

Corporations are different than academic institutions. In an academic institution, the goal may be just sharing diverse ideas, without a need to impact the bottom line. Hours of debate can be perfectly acceptable. In a corporation, sharing ideas without having an impact is worse than useless. It is a waste of the stockholders money and a distraction from serving customers.

Too many executives is having to win too much…

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.

One of the most important behaviors to avoid is “whining” about the past. Have you ever managed someone who incessantly complained about how bad things are? When people consistently whine, they inhibit any change they may have for impacting the future. Their managers tend to view them as annoying. Their direct reports view them as inept. Nobody wins.

Successful people love getting ideas aimed at helping them achieve their goals for the future. They dislike being “proven wrong” because of their mistakes in the past. By focusing on the future you can concentrate on what can be achieved tomorrow, as opposed to what was not achieved yesterday. This “future attitude” may dramatically increase your odds of influencing decision-makers. It will also help you build better long-term relationships with people.

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 organisation.

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 organisation!

11 June 2016. © Marshall Goldsmith and Gil Dekel. Photo © Samuel Zeller/Unsplash, used with permission.

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‘Influencing Decision-Makers: How Your Knowledge Can Make a ‎Difference’ by Marshall Goldsmith and Gil Dekel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.