One of the single biggest challenges faced by middle and senior managers is influencing upward in their organizations. Without formal power, how do you trigger the listening required to ensure important truths are heard? Yes, it’s what you say, and how you say it. and it’s building relationships, taking courage, and having stamina.
1. Have a Clear Purpose
Be crystal-clear in your own mind about the purpose of your communication and your commitment to that purpose. This will allow you to keep the topic on the table, even when others are not interested or attempt to minimize its importance. For example, something like the following carries more weight that an unclear purpose:
“We are losing good employees because we have established a purely a transactional relationship between them and the company. I have been thinking about what we can do differently to more fully engage and keep our best employees regardless of opportunities elsewhere.”
2. Frame Your Intentions
Be upfront about what you are trying to accomplish and why. It’s just as important to communicate what your intentions are as it is to communicate what they are not. For example, “My intention is to ensure front-line employees have a clear line-of-sight between their day-to-day work and the mission and strategy of the company, so they feel connected beyond their paychecks. My intention IS NOT to be inappropriately transparent with proprietary company information.”
3. Build Relationships of Trust
Find the mutual purpose and intention that you share with those in more powerful (higher level) positions. Where do you share common ground and purpose? Appeal to others’ enlightened self-interest, so the solution you create together is better than what you originally imagined.
4. Enter the Danger
Focus on doing the job, rather than keeping the job. We work with a number of would-be execs who are so focused on preserving their own identity (title, role, ease, etc.) that they forget the job they were brought on to do. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland in 1990, said this was what gave her courage to challenge people and institutions more powerful than she on her signature issue of human rights.
5. Keep Working Until it Comes Out Right.
After hearing “no” or having one’s idea rejected a couple of times, most people back off and turn to projects or initiatives that have the support of powerful people. True leaders, on the other hand, hear “no” as “not now,” and they keep talking about and working toward the right outcome. This does not necessarily mean an inseparable loyalty to one’s own ideas—even when the idea doesn’t fit. It means, however, that many good potential solutions are prone to encountering a brick well when first proposed. Rejection—and even failure—does not necessarily mean that it was a bad idea.
Used together, these five tips will provide the platform for you to speak up and be heard by those with more formal power than you. They will allow you to be taken seriously and will ensure that the unpopular truth stays on the table long enough to be engaged with and acted upon.
What have you found to be most effective when speaking truth to power? Feel free to add to the list in the comments below.