How to Sell Your Ideas up the Chain of Command

By Ethan Burris
March 17, 2022

According to the author’s research, two factors are crucial to a successful pitch: having the confidence to make your suggestion and knowing how to frame it to get the best reception from your boss.

The key, the author says, is to understand the psychology of higher-ups—to get inside their heads. Doing so can help you recognize what tips the scales in your favor—and identify the (rare) instances when it’s best to try to go around or above them.

You have a great idea—a product tweak that will save your company money, a process change to increase your team’s productivity, or a plan for heading off a looming crisis. There’s just one snag: You’re not sure how to approach your boss about it, or worse, you’ve tried and failed to get the attention of higher-ups.

Despite abundant research on the value of bottom-up innovation and problem-solving, many workers still feel stifled in giving their bosses feedback or making suggestions. One survey of U.S. employees found that a full 70% weren’t comfortable raising an issue with their boss even when it was important, and a landmark 2003 study found that 85% of employees withheld their ideas because they were afraid to speak up.

Additional research shows that even when employees do speak up, their suggestions usually don’t lead to change. For example, an Accenture study showed that nearly three-fourths of ideas submitted through corporate online suggestion tools languished and were never implemented. Another study of a hospital found that of 200 ideas shared by employees, most were initially rejected and fewer than a quarter were ever implemented.

For the past two decades, I’ve studied how employees offer solicited and unsolicited recommendations and how managers respond. Obviously, there are many reasons why ideas—including those from senior leaders—fail to make it to implementation. But too often good ideas are ignored or rejected. I’ve found that two factors are key to a successful pitch: having the confidence to make your suggestion and knowing how to frame it to get the best reception from your boss. Some managers will be more unapproachable and unresponsive than others, but research shows that the majority are more open to ideas and suggestions than you might imagine—provided they are approached effectively.

In the studies my colleagues and I have conducted across health care, restaurant, oil and gas, technology, and financial service organizations, we’ve uncovered several strategies that you can use to make yourself heard by managers, thereby enhancing both your company’s performance and your own experience at work. We’ve found that the key to selling your idea up the chain of command is to understand the psychology of higher-ups—to get inside their heads. Doing so can help you recognize what tips the scales in your favor—and identify the (rare) instances when it’s best to try to go around or above them.

Understand Your Manager’s Insecurities

When deciding whether to speak up about an idea or a problem at work, most employees think first about their own standing. Do I want to risk the potential embarrassment of being rejected by the boss? Will my manager see me as a complainer, a worrywart, or a pot-stirrer? Few people, however, focus on their manager’s ego. How will this suggestion make my boss feel?

Being the boss comes with heavy expectations. Leaders are supposed to be well-informed and know what to do all or most of the time. That can make them feel insecure and leave them less open to subordinates’ ideas. Consider the survey we did of highly educated managers—chemists, geologists, geophysicists, petroleum and environmental engineers, drillers, and executive staff—at a multinational oil and gas company. We found that despite being exceedingly accomplished, many lacked confidence in their ability to lead. In another study, we found that with each one-point decrease in confidence on a five-point scale, managers were 35% less likely to solicit advice from their employees. And a follow-up study of more than 130 managers across industries showed that insecure managers gave workers who spoke up evaluations that were 21% more negative—and implemented their ideas 14% less frequently—than managers who felt more comfortable in their roles did.

Of course, some leaders are able to absorb feedback and ideas without feeling criticized or threatened. But even in those cases, there is very little downside to protecting their egos and neutralizing their insecurities. And it’s possible to do so without feeling manipulative or sycophantic or exerting a lot of effort.

Ideally, when you propose an idea to higher-ups, you’ll have already laid the groundwork by building trust and goodwill. Giving your manager positive feedback and expressing gratitude can help in this regard, provided the sentiments are genuine and delivered long before your pitch. It can be something as simple as, “I really enjoyed that presentation” or “Thanks for your support in the meeting today.”

As research by Adam Grant, Sharon Parker, and Catherine Collins has shown, managers pay attention to whether their employees tend to help themselves or help others. By routinely supporting your peers, you send signals that your suggestions are designed to improve the organization as a whole—and your manager’s standing. Indeed, explicitly conveying the benevolence of your motives can be helpful when making a suggestion to your boss, according to research led by Harvard Business School’s Leslie John. Especially when you’re giving negative feedback, prefacing your comments with a simple phrase such as “I really want the best for you” can help you avoid the likability penalty often paid by messengers of bad news.

When possible, approach your manager in private rather than publicly. A study by Sofya Isaakyan of the Rotterdam School of Management and colleagues showed that managers felt 30% less threatened when employees spoke to them one-on-one than when the suggestions were made in front of other employees.

Finally, try to frame your suggestions in a way that links them to the company’s stated goals. You might reference your boss’s previous communications: for example, “You’ve spoken before about your focus on intuitive design. Here’s my idea for improving the user-friendliness of X product” or “I was thinking back to that email you sent about the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion and wondering if we could make more progress by shifting our recruitment efforts from Y to Z.”

Avoid Mixed Messages

When selling an idea, people often frame it by combining two messages: the benefits of doing something new and the risk of inaction. This is a mistake. Across five studies with executives from dozens of industries, my colleagues and I learned that managers are more likely to endorse messages that focus on either an opportunity or a threat; a combination of the two garners the least support.

In one of the studies, we analyzed more than 850 ideas submitted by 350 employees in a hospital system in the Midwest. They included suggestions about how to improve staff satisfaction, quality of care, patient satisfaction, and patient safety. We found that when proposals referenced both an opportunity and a threat, managers had to exert more effort to understand the nature and severity of the problem, the solution, and why the proposal was better than the status quo. The increased cognitive work brought additional scrutiny and colored how managers evaluated those ideas, often leading to their rejection. On the flip side, proposals that used one frame were more likely to be endorsed.

Which frame should you use? Our research revealed that employees should try to discern whether the managers they’re pitching to have a “promotion focus” (that is, they focus on aspirations, ideals, the future, and playing to win) or a “prevention focus” (they’re preoccupied with staying vigilant, managing downsides, and playing not to lose) and then frame proposals accordingly.

A promotion-focused manager will want to know that an idea presents a new and exciting opportunity with tremendous upside. A prevention-focused manager will need to know how the suggestion will help the team avoid a problem or loss. Our research across several studies involving more than 800 frontline managers shows that tailoring the message to a manager’s personality can increase the likelihood that an idea will be endorsed by 15% to 18%.

There is no surefire way to diagnose your manager’s focus, but most people have tells. Is your boss concerned with obeying rules, following standard operating procedures, and upholding company policy? Very careful in outlining and executing on plans? Meticulous with the details of work and not messing anything up? If so, he probably has a prevention focus. Or does your manager like to start projects but doesn’t necessarily finish them all? Does she talk often about what the future holds? Prefer that others worry about the details of projects? Let little mistakes slide? If so, she most likely has a promotion focus.

Make Implementation Easy

Even when managers see the merit in an idea, there’s no guarantee they’ll back it amid myriad challenges and competing priorities. So it’s helpful to anticipate potential obstacles and explain how they might be overcome. In studies of a large hospital ER, a commercial real estate firm, and a defense contracting company, we found that managers typically evaluated an employee-generated idea by considering three questions: What financial and human resources will be required to implement it? How difficult will it be to enlist the help of others? Is it worth devoting time, energy, and political capital to? You’ll want to address all three areas of concern in your pitch.

Consider a cautionary tale of a physician who suggested that ER patient flow could be managed more effectively by using additional nurses to triage patients. While the benefits would be substantial (for example, patients would receive critical care more quickly), the costs would most likely be steep: The proposal could require additional head count, present scheduling challenges, and cause shortages of skilled staff in other areas of the hospital, such as the ICU and operating rooms. The physician hadn’t thought enough about those hurdles before speaking to his manager, and so the idea was quickly shot down. A nurse we talked to shared a similar story. She proposed a better system for dealing with psychiatric and intoxicated patients who were overburdening her ER, but because the plan required coordination with various external groups—police, social services, policy makers, and others, each of which had different contacts within the hospital—her boss couldn’t see a way to make it happen. If she had thought through how those relationships might be managed, her proposal would probably have gotten more traction.

In contrast, another physician who kept management concerns in mind in presenting a potential solution to a problem was more successful. Because his hospital was the only Level 1 trauma center in the region, it attracted a lot of distracting media attention, from reporters covering sensational injuries to photographers capturing local celebrities getting treatment. Managers, nurses, and doctors had to spend valuable time away from their health care duties dealing with the news outlets. Instead of suggesting that the hospital hire additional public relations staff or create a costly and complicated process for handling the media, the doctor made one simple suggestion: erect a privacy barrier at the ambulance entrance, preventing the media from seeing arriving patients. This cost a few thousand dollars, required zero staff time, and saved the hospital a lot of headaches.

So before you approach higher-ups, give some thought to the potential challenges to execution. You might end up scrapping your idea—but generally, thinking about obstacles will strengthen your case. In making your pitch, describe how budgets and people could be redeployed to your idea without putting undue stress on other projects or parts of the business. Discuss which allies you’d need to enlist, and volunteer to help bring them on board. And don’t forget to highlight how your idea aligns with the organization’s values and strategy—and why supporting it is worthwhile for your manager.

For example, an employee trying to persuade the boss to let the team continue to work remotely postpandemic might focus on the economic advantages (such as real estate cost savings) if she knows her company is particularly focused on running a tight P&L. Or if the organization and its leaders tout their commitment to staff wellness and work/life balance and reward bosses who drive engagement by promoting such efforts, she might emphasize the benefits of eliminating workers’ long commutes. By tapping into the key values of the company—which are often reflected in the specific measures on which your manager is evaluated—you can better frame your ideas to make them seem more worthy of action. Indeed, a study led by David Mayer showed that in values-driven organizations, employees who talked about company values when advocating for an idea were 24% more successful than those who didn’t.

Leverage Colleagues

Employees often fail to seek guidance or support from coworkers before offering feedback and suggestions. In one study I conducted, nearly 60% of people talked directly to their managers before running ideas by colleagues to see if they had merit. This is striking, given that the first question managers ask themselves is often whether the issue is a big deal affecting many stakeholders—or the employee is being overly enthusiastic or a “squeaky wheel.”

Many voices are obviously more persuasive than just one, and allies give you credibility. Before approaching your boss, share your thoughts with your coworkers, take counsel on how to improve your pitch, and ask if you can mention their support or if they’d be willing to join you in presenting the idea. Across several studies, employees who amplified the voices of others in their pitches were 15% to 20% more influential than those who spoke only on their own behalf.

You might even consider asking a well-positioned coworker to present your idea for you. A colleague who has more domain expertise or a better relationship with your boss might be more persuasive than you would be. Even better if you can choose someone who won’t directly benefit from the change; such a person’s arguments are likely to be seen as more legitimate. After all, your colleague is sticking his or her neck out for you. In a forthcoming study, my coauthors and I found that people who spoke up on behalf of others were 57% more influential than those who spoke up for themselves.

Joining forces with colleagues has yet another benefit—it helps diffuse any knee-jerk frustration that the manager might take out on the person making the suggestion. Research by Leslie John has found that people are prone to disparaging those who tell them things they don’t want to hear—that is, they shoot the messenger. There’s safety in numbers, so enlist some allies.

Pitch to the Right Person

Putting yourself in your manager’s shoes will also make you more likely to identify the instances when he or she can’t help. It is pointless to continually raise issues with a boss who lacks the power or authority to address them. For example, one restaurant employee spoke to his shift manager about the lower wages earned by people who’d been at the company for years compared with those earned by much-less-experienced workers. He quickly realized that his boss had no control over compensation policy; corporate HR did, and by bringing the matter up to the wrong person, he was more likely to cause frustration than inspire positive change.

In such cases, consider what’s in your managers’ purview and whether other managers would be better targets for your suggestions. Who has the decision rights? Is it human resources? Facilities? Your manager’s manager? If it’s unclear who the right person is, you might try using formal grievance systems or digital suggestion boxes to help you get your ideas out there.

To be clear, I’m not recommending that you simply go around your boss when you think he or she can’t or won’t take action. This is ill-advised in most cases—especially in highly political, top-down organizations or if your manager is particularly sensitive. A much better approach is to enlist your boss as an ally in selling your idea to the right department or up the chain of command. Approach your manager as a collaborator and coconspirator, and ask for help in crafting your suggestion in a way that will resonate with more-senior executives.

In spreading the word, try to find opportunities for informal conversations with higher-ups. As in-office activity resumes, seek them out in the cafeteria, on the elevator, at the holiday party. Bosses who might balk at an employee’s scheduling a meeting to discuss an issue are likely to find impromptu chats less intimidating or even noteworthy.

Despite the clear benefits, innovation rarely bubbles up from below at most organizations. However, blame for those missed opportunities doesn’t always lie with management. To sell your ideas up the chain of command, think about the psychology behind managers’ resistance and reframe your proposals in a way that makes you a more persuasive advocate for change.

 

Copyright 2022 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

 

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