Upward LeadershipOne of the most read articles on our web site is “Bad Boss: Learn How to Manage Your Manager“. Upward leadership is a crucial and often underdeveloped skill. Many people give far too much power and control to their boss. If they’ve won the “boss lottery” and report to a great leader, work life is good. If the boss is a mediocre or weak leader, work life can be tolerable. And if they’ve drawn the short straw and have a boss from hell, work life can be miserable.

We’ve long defined leadership as an action, not a position. Strong leaders influence, connect, change, and deliver results regardless of — sometimes in spite of — their formal role or position. That’s especially important in influencing upward to the boss and even further up the organization.

The January-February issue of Harvard Business Review shines a spotlight on “soft skills you can’t neglect.” In “Getting the Boss to Buy In” Susan Ashford, professor at the University of Michigan, and James Detert, associate professor at Cornell University, report on their study of the most successful approaches to “issue selling” across a range of roles and industries. The researchers found these seven tactics used by the strongest leaders to “gain traction for their ideas:”

  1. Tailor Your Pitch — connect your message to his or her organizational goals, values, and knowledge.
  2. Frame the Issue — package and position your idea within the organization’s larger strategy such as customer responsiveness.
  3. Manage Emotions on Both Sides — appropriately balance passion or anger/frustration to rouse motivation for action.
  4. Get the Timing Right — “catch the wave” when priorities shift, key players change, or more people are paying attention to a larger topic or trend.
  5. Involve Others — build coalitions, mobilize allies, and partner with people who have critical relationships with those you’re trying to influence.
  6. Adhere to Norms — know what kind of data leaders like to use, how they prefer to receive information, or the best combination/sequence of informal and formal approaches.
  7. Suggest Solutions — if a solution isn’t obvious suggest a process for analyzing and discovering one.

This research and approaches align with our Influence Index. Influencing in all directions is a vital leadership skill regardless of position or role.


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