Achieving Effects with Your Boss, pt. 3: Decision Time

So far in the Achieving Effects with Your Boss series, we’ve covered how to make the right first impression and how to engage your boss with intention. Now that you’re comfortable with the leadership environment your boss has established, it’s time to discuss how to influence his decision making to achieve effects for you, your team, and the greater organization.

Secretary of the Army John McHugh listens as Commander of the Combined Arms Center Lt. Gen. David G. Perkins briefs during a visit at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, April 20, 2012 at Joint Base Langley–Eustis, Va. U.S. Army Photo by Staff Sgt. Bernardo Fuller.

Disclaimer

Be warned…we are wading into potentially dangerous territory in the effort to influence your boss’s decision making. You need to evaluate the type of leadership your boss is exhibiting before you start suggesting changes. Most leaders welcome feedback and constructive suggestions to make the command better. But a toxic leader might punt you right outside the circle of trust if he thinks you’re encroaching on his authority.

Why seek a decision?

Regardless, here are some reasons for which you might engage your boss for a decision:

  • Seeking approval for an activity your unit will conduct
  • Influencing the way in which your unit will fit into upcoming operations or events
  • Attempting to change a policy that your boss has implemented or plans to implement
  • Defending yourself or your unit in the wake of a negative incident
  • Lobbying for a subordinate to take a key position on his staff or receive a certain evaluation rating
  • Gaining his endorsement for YOUR next job
  • Requesting his action to correct an issue with his own staff

Check your intent

Your first step is to ensure your desire for change is grounded in the right motives and then to decide how big of a change you are seeking. Consider these questions:

  • Will this change benefit you, your team, or the organization as a whole?
  • Are your desires in line with what’s good for your team?
  • Is this a decision that can be reached/implemented within the boss’s tenure?
  • Is it short term tactical or long term strategic?
  • Will it cause your boss to go against a policy or decision he’s set before?
  • Does he even have the authority to act, or must he go up the chain of command?

Check your engagement methods

Next, figure out the best way to bring up your change idea. You’ve got a few options beyond just walking into the boss’s office. Should you:

  • Go it alone?
  • Rally your own team behind it?
  • Get adjacent unit/leader buy-in?
  • Seek input from your mentors or other key brokers?
  • Engage your boss’s staff to feel out the topic first or shape conditions?

How you answer all these questions will shape your plan of engagement, frame how you approach the problem, and set expectations about how quickly change might occur.

Consolidate your position

Before you take action to influence your environment, be clear about what is best for you and your organization. What do you really want from the boss? What are the minimum conditions that would satisfy your intent? If you must, develop talking points or an elevator pitch. You don’t want casual chatter to commit you to a half-developed idea.

Map the objective

Now it’s time to develop an engagement strategy based on what type of decision you are seeking. If it’s a long term effort, you may have to develop a phased plan to influence your boss. On the other hand, if she is the decision authority but the decision won’t affect her organization, you may not need to invest a lot of time. Recognize that if you plan on seeking a decision that changes the course of your boss’s organization or reverses a previous decision, you’ll need to research your approach and gain some allies.

Rally the troops

When you do enlist support for your cause, do so discretely with trusted peers and mentors. What’s worse than the boss shooting down your proposal is that he thinks you’re plotting something and not telling him. Pitch your ideas to peers in adjacent units and earnestly seek their input. Ask them to check the sanity of your plan, determine the risk involved, and offer alternate approaches. This process strengthens your argument and builds legitimacy.

Shape the environment

Don’t march into the boss’s office just yet. Instead, ponder how you can shape his close-in environment to make your effort easier. It may help to float your ideas by his staff and senior advisors, who will know what he is thinking about the topic and maybe a sense of whether it’s a good time to bring it up.

Note: if you do approach other people or your boss’s staff about the issue, be very clear that it’s off the record and in draft form. You don’t want one of them to mess up your engagement strategy by revealing it early.

Assault the objective

When it’s time to approach the boss with your request, chose the venue deliberately. Does the topic require a separate meeting or briefing? Should your fellow leaders be present? Maybe it’s best to drop a hint in casual conversation or email, then follow up later in a more formal setting. In any way, you’ll have the best chance for a positive decision if you are in control of how your argument is presented.

Prepare your reasoning with a bottom line up front, bullet points to support your position, and counterarguments that may arise. Remember, your goal is to improve the overall capability of the entire team, so be open to legitimate criticism and view it as a way to improve your approach.

Take notes, confirm details, and follow up on actionable points. And if your boss isn’t ready to commit to a decision during the first discussion, don’t push him. Some leaders want to let new ideas marinate before fulling engaging.

Follow through

Make sure to thank your boss for her willingness to be persuaded…there are plenty of leaders out there who want nothing to do with change or subordinate ideas. If you are successful and your new decision requires action, get to work right away. Show that you’re committed to producing tangible results, not just getting your way. Immediately schedule a follow-up meeting or update and communicate how the boss’s decision has affected the organization. Again, your goal is the bigger team. If the decision ultimately turns out to have been a bad one, let your boss know, then go back to the drawing board.

Conclusion

Hopefully in this series, I’ve been able to express that every encounter with your boss is an opportunity to move the ball down the field. Leaders don’t have casual encounters with the boss, not when organizations are relying on them to create better conditions for success. The most successful leaders prioritize their efforts, plan their engagement methods, and are deliberate about leveraging their influence. That’s what their people expect.

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Originally published at www.themilitaryleader.com on September 21, 2015.