How To Sell Your Ideas At Work And Get Higher-Ups To Listen

It's not enough to just share a brilliant idea; you also need to consider timing and workplace politics to get others on board.
It can take a lot of social and political planning to see your ideas adopted.
skynesher via Getty Images
It can take a lot of social and political planning to see your ideas adopted.

All of us have those “aha” moments at our jobs when we know, deep down, that we have just thought of a great idea.

But in some ways, the harder part is convincing everyone else.

Often there’s a disconnect between what employees think about their idea and how people who can make that idea happen see it, according to Ethan Burris, director of the center for leadership and ethics at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. He researches how employees offer unsolicited recommendations and how managers react to them.

Many of us will think “‘It is blatantly obvious that [my] idea is fantastic and the only thing I need to do is verbalize it to someone else and everything else will be gravy and daisies.’ That’s not the reality,” Burris said. “Other people have different experiences inside work. They have different perspectives, they have different incentives. Especially your boss, he or she has a different vantage point on what’s happening in the organization that many individual contributors ... just don’t.”

To bridge the gap, you need to slow down and start thinking strategically about when and how to communicate your awesome idea so it will actually be heard. Career experts shared their best tips for how to set yourself up for success.

1. Understand which ideas are likely to make the biggest difference.

To see which ideas are most likely to make a big difference and increase your own influence within the organization, listen to what your colleagues complain about, said Gorick Ng, a career adviser at Harvard University and author of “The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right.

Ng noted that problems in the workplace sit on a spectrum. On one side are inconveniences, while on the other end are mission-critical problems that could derail projects and companies. And somewhere in the middle, but still close to the mission-critical side, are massive time-wasting pains.

“The more you align yourself with solving massive pains and mission-critical problems, the more likely people will be to recognize your potential — and your promotability,” Ng said. “To identify these massive pains and mission-critical problems, pay attention to how often your manager and other higher-ups complain about something. The higher up the complainers are, the more complainers there are, and the more they complain, the bigger the opportunity may be. The better you understand what matters to those who matter, the better your odds of making an impact.”

2. Identify the stakeholders and figure out what they want, so you can frame your idea in that language.

You want to voice your idea to the colleagues who can best help you execute it. And likely, that’s going to be your direct manager, who is often the person you talk with most and is the gateway to the rest of the company for you.

“If you need access to resources or to initiate some change in policy or to do something different, most of the time you need to work through your boss,” Burris said.

If your manager is giving you headaches, there are other people in power, such as your boss’ boss or people in other departments with institutional influence, that you can go to for advice.

Career coach Ebony Joyce said co-workers are not just good for helping you refine the logistics of your idea; they are also great for giving you institutional knowledge about who is best to champion and implement it. “Especially when you are new to the organization, it’s like, ‘Hey, you know what, if I want to talk to John about this, what do you think?’ They can say, ‘I wouldn’t go to John first, you may want to talk to John’s boss first.’”

No matter who you go to, do your homework beforehand. “Be prepared for follow-up questions, be prepared for the whys. Why, when, how much?” said Joyce.

“Pay attention to how often your manager and other higher-ups complain about something. The higher up the complainers are, the more complainers there are, and the more they complain, the bigger the opportunity may be.”

With all co-workers, it helps to ask yourself what the person’s priorities are and “What keywords and information pique their interest?” said Lawrese Brown, founder of C-Track Training, a workplace education company.

“Without buy-in, there’s no continued conversation or chance of implementation,” she said. “Basically, building buy-in is about ‘How can I position this so that people see the value in it for themselves and the organization?’”

“Every organization cares about the same five things: more, better, faster, cheaper and safer/more secure,” Ng said. “The more you can present your idea in terms of how it can help the team achieve more, better, faster, cheaper, and/or safer/more securely, the higher your odds of being heard.”

3. Get inside your manager’s head. See if they are playing to win or playing not to lose.

Burris has found in his research that it does not help to mix messages when you are ready to voice your idea; it’s stronger to either pick it as an opportunity or pitch it as a problem in order to have a higher chance of it being endorsed by your manager. The personality style of your boss can help you decide which one to choose.

Burris found that there are bosses who are either playing to win or playing not to lose, and you should frame your ideas around those types. He gave the example of marketing departments that love launching new products as those who are playing to win, while conservative legal departments that want sure bets as those who are playing not to lose.

“You are going to pitch the positives if it’s someone who plays to win, and you are going to talk about impending threats and problems if no action is taken if you are going to pitch to someone who plays not to lose,” he explained.

4. In fact, it helps to understand how all your colleagues prefer to communicate, so you can tailor your message.

“People talk to you the way they want you to talk to them,” Brown said, noting that you can distill workplace communicators into four types you can sell your idea to in different ways:

  • Personal communicators like it when you focus on how the community, partner, group or person benefits from the idea.
  • Functional communicators prefer it when you home in on how the idea will be executed, and they will want to know the timeline and who is accountable for each deliverable.
  • Intuitive communicators like big-picture stories of how the idea broadly impacts the organization.
  • Analytical communicators prefer when you back up your idea with quantitative evidence and an analysis of how different parts are connected to a bigger outcome.

In her book “How To Speak With Confidence,” Brown goes into detail about how to talk with people who really value personal connections, for example. For these communicators, it helps to start the conversation with what you share in common.

“Lead with personalization that emphasizes your knowledge of the individual you’re speaking to. ‘What topic, opinion, or cause do we both care about?’” Brown wrote in her book.

5. Remember, timing matters a lot, and budget timelines are something to consider.

To make it easier for leaders to greenlight your idea, you need to be strategic about when you are proposing it, too. Burris said to ask yourself: “Is the issue important strategically for the organization right now?”

Keep in mind that money is a big influence on timing.

Burris gave the example of university budgets. “If you pitch that idea in August after budget cycles are already set for the next year, man, it can be really hard to take budget away from something else and then plug it into yours, rather than making that negotiation during that budget cycle itself,” he said.

In general, Ng noted, the best time to bring up your idea is the time when it will be most memorable in the discussion.

“Often, this means speaking at the start of the discussion, so you anchor the group on a particular idea, or towards the end of the discussion, so you leave the group with one last takeaway,” he said.

6. If you are told “no,” don’t give up. Peers can help you get your idea to the finish line.

If your ideas are met with skepticism, it can help to rope in reinforcements ––especially from peers who would also benefit from your idea.

For a 2021 study published in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly, management researchers from New York University, Harvard and Yale observed for two years how doctors, managers and faculty members with key decision-making power at one medical clinic either implemented or shot down ideas for improvement from nurses, medical assistants and receptionists with low power.

The researchers concluded that one effective way that the low-power employees kept rejected ideas alive was by amplifying them with urgent, emotional language.

In one case, a nurse had an idea to standardize how receptionists transfer information to nurses, but her idea was not approved. When the nurse went on maternity leave, a receptionist kept her idea alive.

As the study put it, “Receptionist1 repeatedly amplified the idea by reviving it through November and December, often using emotional language, such as by saying that receptionist–nurse phone communication ‘is frustrating. It takes time. There’s lots of repetition and wasted time.’ The team had begun implementing Nurse1’s idea by the time she returned from maternity leave in January.“

In this way, getting colleagues who share your same frustrations or hopes to publicly repeat your idea can help your idea gain currency –– and make it harder for higher-ups to dismiss.

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