How To Persuade Your Boss to Support Your Ideas

Businesswomen discussing plans

Power and politics are facts of life in every organization, and your first political challenge is learning to gain support for your ideas and projects from your boss. While it might seem like your boss is predisposed to a quick "No," or, "It's not in the budget" every time you propose a new idea, it is more likely that you simply did not make your case effectively. This article offers ideas for learning to improve your success rate when asking the boss to support your initiatives. 

A Primer on How Bosses Think When You Ask for Resources and Money:

The typical line or direct manager is stretched thin for resources and time, and every time you suggest a new initiative, you are fighting an uphill battle for interest and attention. Having lived in this role for a good number of years, I can assure you that the following thoughts are top-most in your boss's mind when you approach her with your latest idea:

  • We already have too many projects chasing too few resources. We cannot add any more work or the team will rebel. 
  • My priority is to cut costs, and your idea is going to cost money, and there is no guarantee that we will save money in the long term. 
  • Get in line. You are the third person this week to propose a major new initiative.
  • Your idea sounds great, but it does not fit in the strategy. If I cannot tie it to us meeting our strategic objectives this year, I cannot sell it. 
  • I have three emergencies, and my boss is after me for some problem I do not even know we have. Don't bother me. 

While those may be the unspoken thoughts of your boss, they are representative of the very real challenges and headaches of most managers. It is often a thankless job. Now that you know at least a few of the issues keeping your manager awake at night consider a few additional corporate realities. 

  • Many organizations have a detailed project approval process, requiring you to prepare a business case as part of justifying the initiative. 
  • While not every initiative is worthy of a business case, if your request includes resources and/or money, you are fighting for pre-allocated budget dollars. Senior managers have some discretion to move budget dollars from one category to another, however, in some organizations, this is a time consuming and annoyingly difficult activity. 
  • Many organizations will filter requests against the over-arching strategy and key objectives. If the initiative does not appear to support or fit with those objectives, it becomes difficult to justify. 

Yes, there are many good reasons why your ideas, requests, and projects will die a quiet death either with your manager or your manager's manager. Your challenge is to anticipate the issues identified above and present a case that eliminates the largest obstacles. 

Seven Steps for Getting to "Yes" with Your Boss:

  1. Always do your homework. Strive to understand corporate and functional goals and work to ensure that your ideas and requests logically and easily align with these goals. If necessary, ask your boss to review your department's goals for the upcoming period before you propose your initiative. Take it one step further, and ask your boss to describe his/her goals. The more insight you have on how your boss and your team will be evaluated, the easier it will be to tailor your request to fit within those parameters. 
  2. Emphasize burden relief, not some ambiguous and unlikely future gains. Review the content above and remember that your boss is focused on survival more than self-actualization. Develop proposals that showcase reducing labor, simplifying processes, and taking the strain off of already over-burdened resources. 
  3. Plan your case like a lawyer. Your boss and perhaps other senior managers are the jury, and you typically get one chance to make the case. Base your case on helping solve a problem; show how it will alleviate the problem; indicate the impact in terms of cost savings, increased productivity, or improved efficiency. Ask an objective third-party to check your assumptions and data. 
  4. Carefully add in the indirect benefits to sweeten your case. After identifying the burden relief and substantiating your numbers and assumptions, you can offer potential additional benefits that are more intangible but attractive, such as improved morale or job satisfaction, reduced staff turnover, the opportunity for additional learning or job rotation. 
  5. Pre-plan your answers to objections. Anticipate questions and objections and think through and document your responses in advance of making the actual request. 
  6. Time, place, and opportunity are critical. Be deliberate about identifying the best opportunity to make your case. One of my bosses preferred very early breakfast meetings to talk through new ideas. I had his complete attention for 45-minutes. All I had to do was arrive at 5:15 a.m. Find your boss's equivalent "best time" and get on the schedule. 
  7. Make the sales pitch like a consultative salesperson. Remember, your boss wants help, not more work or added costs. Empathize with the challenges. Offer polite solutions to any objections or tailor your approach as called needed. Display your passion for the idea and commit to making it successful. This last step, commitment, is the most important. 

The Bottom-Line:

The essence of management is allocating resources to the best opportunities. Your understanding of goals and targets and your empathy with your boss's challenges are essential for success in getting to "yes" for your ideas and project proposals. A methodical approach to building, presenting, and defending your case will improve your odds of success tremendously.