In my consulting work, I engage with staff at all levels, from those who occupy the chairperson’s seat in the boardroom to those who work on the shop floor and in the fields. As I converse with them and study them I see a whole spectrum of diameters in their circles of influence — not necessarily related to their seniority.
Some chairs act merely as “traffic police”, guiding who should speak next while not adding significant value; while some of the very young and very junior can be making an impact on their environments that is way beyond what is expected.
Partly it is a function of how active and creative their minds are; much depends on their communication skills; and, a key component is confidence and boldness — the willingness to share what is on one’s mind, imagining that others will be interested in one’s thoughts and be keen to hear them.
We each develop our reputations, some for just quietly getting on with our tasks as narrowly defined in our job descriptions, others for restlessly and relentlessly championing new and better ways of doing things.
The latter may well be inconvenient disrupters, so here the challenge is to make one’s point in ways that others find possible to digest. And this brings me to the specific theme of this article: influencing upwards, often the most difficult direction in which to generate change.
Let me take you back to the time I was facilitating programmes on “Leadership for Influence” as a faculty member of the Aga Khan Graduate School of Media and Communications.
Among them was a series of events for groups of branch managers of a large nationwide organisation, where as I encouraged them to talk about their communications challenges the one that emerged time and again, and so strongly, was being listened to by their seniors.
What I heard was that theirs was a company where strategies and objectives were set at higher levels than theirs, and then communicated downwards. No one was interested in their voices, they felt. I found this quite puzzling, as it was their bosses who had brought me in to help them with their communications skills.
Within the workshops I had them write and perform short plays which began with a problem, either internally with a colleague or externally with a customer and reached a tipping point as a result of which the problem was resolved and a win-win solution emerged.
Many of their playlets featured a dissatisfied client, and I noted that without exception almost immediately on hearing their complaint the script had the client-facing staff take the complainant to their branch manager for them to resolve the issue.
Why were the scripts written this way? Were they not empowered to resolve issues themselves? Did their managers hold back from delegating authority? Did they not trust their people? Were they just timid, unwilling to make what would be perceived as the wrong decision? What could have led to the staff member holding back from such consistent instant escalation?
We discussed all this, and also the question of how the communication between the branch managers and their seniors could be improved. Yet when I proposed that as an output from their sessions with me the participants should seek such dialogue they were hesitant to do so.
Influencing upwards, they felt, was not something that would be appreciated. It was not in the organisational culture.
Through those who had hired me for the workshops, I did suggest that escalation and delegation management was a topic that needed airing, but I never got to know if anything was done as a result of my intervention.
How is it in your organisation? Do you actively seek the views of your juniors? Do you listen to their voices? Do you develop their competence and their confidence to make responsible judgments on behalf of the organisation — providing adequate guidelines and guardrails, and accepting that sometimes your decision might have been different?
Do you trust them to do the right thing? Or do you micro-manage them, making them feel they must delegate upwards, for fear of being hammered for taking a “wrong” approach?
The larger the organisation the more important this issue becomes. Those who will prosper in these uncertain and volatile times are the ones who encourage influencing upwards.