How to Get Your Ideas Up the Corporate Ladder

You have a brilliant idea for a product improvement that will save your business money, a process that will boost your team’s productivity, or a strategy to avoid an impending disaster. There’s only one problem: you don’t know how to approach your boss about it, or you’ve tried and failed to garner higher-ups’ attention.

Despite extensive studies demonstrating the importance of bottom-up creativity and problem-solving, many employees still feel unable to provide feedback or make ideas to their supervisors. According to one survey of U.S. employees, 70% of employees are hesitant to raise an issue with their employer, even if it is critical, while another study illustrated that 85% of employees withhold their ideas because they are frightened to speak up.

According to another study, even when employees speak up, their proposals seldom create change. Only 25% of suggestions from online suggestion platforms are adopted. Many factors contribute to the failure of ideas, even those from senior leaders, to be implemented. Good ideas, on the other hand, are frequently disregarded or dismissed. Having the courage to make your recommendation and knowing how to structure it to receive the best response from your supervisor are the two most vital components in a successful pitch. Some managers will be more challenging to reach and respond to than others, but research suggests that the vast majority are more receptive to ideas and proposals than you would think.   

Understanding the psychology of higher-ups is crucial to selling your proposal up the chain of command. This will enable you to detect what causes the scales to tip in your favor—and the (few) occasions when it’s advisable to try to go around or above them.

Recognize your boss’s insecurities.

When determining whether to speak up at work about an idea or an issue, most employees consider their position first. Do I want to put myself in the place of being rejected by the boss? Will my boss think of me as a whiner, a worrier, or a pot-stirrer? On the other hand, few people think about their boss’s ego. What will my supervisor think of this suggestion?

Being the boss comes with a lot of responsibilities. Leaders feel the obligation to be well-informed and know what to do most of the time, if not all of the time. This might make them feel uneasy, making them less open to suggestions from subordinates. Consider a survey of highly educated managers at a global oil and gas business. Despite their educational credentials, many people lacked confidence in their leadership abilities.  

Research of more than 130 managers revealed that insecure managers gave workers who spoke out worse ratings (and adopted their suggestions 14 percent less frequently) than managers who felt more at ease in their responsibilities.

Some leaders can take criticism and ideas without feeling intimidated. Even in those circumstances, though, supporting their egos and suppressing their fears has few drawbacks. It’s also feasible to do so without coming across as manipulative or sycophantic. 

When you approach higher-ups with a suggestion, you should have previously built the basis by establishing trust and goodwill. Giving favorable comments and expressing thanks to your boss might assist in this area if the feelings are authentic and communicated well before your pitch. It might be as plain as “I appreciated that presentation” or “Thanks for your participation in today’s meeting.”

Managers pay attention to whether their workers prefer to benefit themselves or others. By consistently demonstrating your support for your colleagues, you give the message that your proposals are intended to help the business as a whole—and your manager’s position. 

Try to connect your proposals to the company’s stated objectives. For example, 

  • “You’ve talked before about your focus on intuitive design,” 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,” or 
  • “Here’s my idea for making X product more user-friendly.” 

Don’t Send Mixed Messages

People generally combine two themes when selling an idea: the rewards of trying something new and the risk of doing nothing. This is a blunder. Instead of a combination of opportunity and danger, people are more likely to accept something that focuses on just one.  

What is the best frame to use? Employees should try to determine whether the managers they’re pitching have a “promotion focus” or a “prevention focus” and then frame proposals accordingly. 

A manager looking for promotion will want to know if a proposal delivers a novel and intriguing prospect with significant potential. A manager who is focused on preventing problems or losses will want to know how the recommendation would assist the team to avoid a problem or loss. 

Is your supervisor worried about following the rules, standard operating procedures, and business policy? Is he meticulous in planning and execution? Is he meticulous in his job and never makes a mistake? If that’s the case, he’s most likely focused on prevention. Or does your boss enjoy starting initiatives but not necessarily completing them all? Is she open about her plans for the future? Do you prefer that others take care of project details? Allow insignificant blunders to slide? If that’s the case, she’s most certainly aiming for a promotion. 

Make it simple to implement

Even if a manager believes an idea has potential, there’s no assurance they’ll support it in the face of a slew of hurdles and conflicting objectives. As a result, it’s beneficial to predict potential roadblocks and explain how to overcome them. We discovered that managers frequently assessed an employee-generated concept by evaluating three questions in investigations of a big hospital ER, a commercial real estate firm, and a defense contracting organization. What kind of financial and human resources will be needed to put it in place? How difficult would enlisting the assistance of others be? Is it worthwhile to invest time, effort, and political capital? In your pitch, you should address all three areas of concern.

Consider the cautionary tale of a physician who proposed that ER patient flow would be better managed by adding more nurses to triage patients. While the advantages would be significant (for example, patients would receive critical treatment sooner), the expenses would almost certainly be prohibitive: The idea might result in an increase in headcount, scheduling issues, and trained personnel shortages in other parts of the hospital, such as the ICU and operating rooms. The doctor’s concept was promptly dismissed because he didn’t pay enough attention to those obstacles before communicating with his boss.

A nurse had a similar experience. Her boss couldn’t see a way to implement a better system for dealing with psychiatric and intoxicated patients. They were overburdening her ER. But a better system required coordination with multiple external groups—police, social services, policymakers, and others—each of whom had different contacts within the hospital. Her concept would have garnered more momentum if she had thought through how those groups might be handled.

Another physician, on the other hand, was more effective when offering a potential solution to a problem while keeping management concerns in mind. His facility garnered lots of distracting media attention since it was the only Level 1 trauma center in the area, with reporters reporting dramatic injuries and cameras recording local celebrities receiving treatment. Managers, nurses, and physicians had to take time away from their healthcare responsibilities to deal with the media. Instead of recommending that the hospital employ more public relations workers or devise an expensive and time-consuming procedure for dealing with the media, the doctor offered a simple suggestion: construct a privacy barrier at the ambulance door to keep the media from seeing arriving patients. This cost a few thousand dollars took no time from personnel and saved the hospital a lot of trouble.

So, before approaching higher-ups, consider the potential obstacles to implementation. You may decide to abandon your plan, but considering potential roadblocks will enhance your argument. Explain how funds and personnel may be redeployed to your concept without causing an excessive burden on other projects or portions of the company in your pitch. Discuss which allies you’ll need and volunteer to assist in their recruitment. Remember to emphasize how your suggestion is in line with the organization’s values and strategy, as well as why your boss should support it.

If she knows her employer is focused on keeping a tight P&L, an employee seeking to persuade the boss to allow the team to work remotely post-pandemic can emphasize the economic benefits (such as real estate cost reductions). She may stress the benefits of avoiding long commutes if the firm and its management advertise their dedication to employee wellness and work/life balance and reward supervisors who promote such initiatives. Tap into your company’s values when structuring your pitch. Those values are likely how your boss will be evaluated. Employees who talked about business values while arguing for an initiative are more effective in values-driven firms. 

Collaborate with your coworkers

Before delivering feedback or recommendations, employees frequently forget to seek direction or assistance from peers. Most workers speak straight to their supervisors before running ideas by colleagues. But this ignores the first thing a manager will ask when evaluating the proposal — whether this is an issue impacting many people. 

Many voices are more convincing than one, and friends lend legitimacy to your cause. Share your ideas with your coworkers before approaching your employer, get feedback on strengthening your pitch, and ask if you can mention their support or if they’d be willing to present the proposal with you. When employees amplify others’ voices they are more persuasive than speaking only on their own behalf.

You may even enlist the help of a well-placed coworker to submit your concept to you. A colleague with better topic knowledge or a stronger relationship with your supervisor may be more convincing than you. It’s much better if you can find someone who will not immediately profit from the change; their arguments will be more credible. After all, your coworker is risking their reputation to help you. People who speak up on behalf of others are more influential than those who stand up for themselves. 

Another advantage of teaming up with coworkers is that it helps to neutralize any anger directed at the individual making the recommendation by the management. Individuals are more likely to disparage those who tell them what they don’t want to hear—in other words, they shoot the messenger. Enlist some pals since there is safety in numbers.

Make a good pitch to the right person.

Putting yourself in your manager’s position can also help you recognize when he can’t assist you. It’s meaningless to keep bringing up concerns with a manager who lacks the authority or capacity to solve them. One restaurant employee, for example, complained to his shift manager about the disparity between the pay earned by long-term employees versus newer employees. He immediately recognized that his supervisor had no say in compensation policy; corporate HR did, and that bringing the issue up to the incorrect person would result in more aggravation than constructive change.

Consider what your managers’ responsibilities are in these situations and whether other managers might be better targets for your proposals. Who has the authority to make decisions? Is it a matter of human resources? Facilities? Is it your boss’s boss? If you’re not sure who the correct person is, formal grievance procedures or digital suggestion boxes could be a good way to get your thoughts out there.

To be clear, I’m not advocating that you just avoid your supervisor when you believe he or she is unable or unable to act. In most circumstances, especially in very political, top-down companies or if your manager is extremely sensitive, this is not a good idea. Enlisting your boss as an ally in selling your proposal to the appropriate department or higher up the chain of command is a far better strategy. As a collaborator and coconspirator, approach your manager and ask for assistance in formulating a recommendation that will resonate.

Try to find opportunities for casual talks with higher-ups while spreading the word. Seek them out in the cafeteria, on the elevator, and at the Christmas party. Bosses who would be put off by an employee organizing a meeting to discuss a problem are likely to find spontaneous conversations less daunting.

Despite the clear benefits, most companies seldom allow innovation to emerge from the bottom up. Management, on the other hand, isn’t always to fault for squandered chances. Consider the psychology underlying managers’ aversion to change when selling your ideas up the chain of command and recast your suggestions in a way that makes you a more appealing advocate for change.

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