Convincing your manager to take action: Prepare and persist

Managers in the IT trenches often see an action that should be taken but may have trouble getting their supervisors to agree to it. Here's some advice for successfully making your case with your boss.

TechRepublic member Will Lockett operates a help desk that serves 120 users for a company in California. He believes that user support is at an acceptable level, but he wants to survey users to find out if there are ways to improve support services. Unfortunately, his manager is not sold on the idea that a survey is needed. Will e-mailed for advice on how to persuade his reluctant manager to conduct a survey of the users.

Will has touched on a critical issue that all new IT managers will need to address—how to persuade a senior manager or supervisor to do something that really needs to be done. The art of tactfully persuading your boss to take certain actions is a cornerstone of your ability to become a successful manager. Although it may seem that the art of persuasion is easier for some people than for others, persuasion is actually a skill that can be learned. Here are some things to consider before attempting to persuade your supervisor or senior manager to take a certain course of action.

Do your homework
Learn as much as you can about the issue you're addressing and be prepared to present your points clearly and concisely. If you were in Will's shoes, for instance, you'd want to brief yourself on the positive outcomes of conducting a survey and on ways to prevent the problems that can occur with poorly designed or badly performed surveys. Try to anticipate questions or concerns that your manager may have, such as who is going to conduct the survey.

Try to control the process for presenting your case
Ask to meet with your manager in a calm setting without distractions. Grabbing the manager in the hallway and presenting your case may result in a response that is not very well thought out or positive. By taking the initiative to set up a formal meeting, you have the initial advantage, since your manager will probably not have a complete idea of what you want. However, if you're not ready to build on this advantage with concise and sound arguments, you'll quickly lose momentum.

Frame your arguments around organizational benefits
Your arguments should demonstrate how your supervisor or the organization will benefit from actions taken. Try to act as confidently as possible about your position, but don't be cocky. Hesitancy on your part may be viewed as lack of confidence or understanding about the issue.

Observe and react to your manager's responses
It's more important to observe and react to how your manager is responding to your arguments than to focus on how you feel about the issue. There are a variety of reasons why someone may feel uncomfortable with an issue. For example, if a particular action might restrict the control your manager has over a situation, he or she may react negatively. Be sensitive to how your manager perceives the issue and your arguments, and be prepared to reduce any anxiety caused by the discussion.

Play up the pros of your position
Most issues and interventions have their pros and cons. The key objective is to show how the pros of your position outweigh the cons. With Will's survey issue, for instance, it is important to demonstrate that the usefulness of the information is worth the hassle of conducting the survey and the possibility of dealing with negative feedback. Don't become defensive when your manager objects to your suggestions or expresses concerns about the issue. Acknowledge the concerns and show that you have taken them into account. Responding well to objections and concerns can actually strengthen your position on an issue.

Aim to establish a course of action
Try to reach an understanding of how the issue will be addressed. If you can't get a definite decision from your manager, try to establish a process and timeline for the decision-making process. For example, if your manager wants to include others in the discussion, decide on a plan for getting feedback from those people. This can often be challenging, because many managers will use delaying tactics to avoid making a decision on an issue. However, respectful persistence on your part will often pay off in the long run.

Be a good loser
You aren't going to win all of the time. Try not to become overly disappointed or resentful if you don't get what you want. Often, the process of persuading your manager can be as important as the issue itself. If you show yourself to be a thoughtful person who presents issues well and accepts negative outcomes gracefully, you may be laying the groundwork for getting your way on other issues in the future.

Consider this situation
This scenario highlights some of the key points of advice I've offered. June is a LAN administrator for a midsize company, and her LAN serves about 30 users. She wants to make sure that the LAN is meeting the needs of users, so decides to conduct a survey to find out their views on her team's service. She saw her supervisor in the hall one day and informed him of her intentions with the survey. To her surprise, he told her not to proceed and indicated that he was not sure if a survey would be very useful. June had assumed that he would like the idea, and his negative response surprised her. She decided not to give up on the idea but did realize that she was going to need to convince her supervisor of the survey's usefulness.

June found reference materials on how to develop, conduct, and analyze surveys for small groups and prepared her arguments. She also found a good sample survey that would work well with her user group. June scheduled a meeting with her supervisor to discuss issues related to user satisfaction with the LAN.

At the meeting, June spoke about the need for accurate feedback on how well her team was performing and provided several ways the information would be used to improve performance. When securing her supervisor's agreement on the need for good feedback, she presented her arguments for a survey and showed him the sample. He expressed concern about the time it would take to administer the survey and to evaluate the results. However, June explained that users would complete the survey online and the information would be evaluated using a guide provided with the sample. Her supervisor continued to be skeptical but did agree to move forward with the survey.

The moral of this story is that June was able to get her way on the survey by securing agreement on one basic issue: the need for good information about her team's performance. She ensured her success by planning her arguments and anticipating the objections her supervisor raised.

Final thoughts
The ultimate success of new managers rests, in large part, on their ability to persuade others to follow their recommendations or advice. This is particularly true when dealing with supervisors or senior managers. Becoming skilled at persuasion takes considerable work and a commitment to thorough planning.

It's important to have a clear understanding of what you're trying to accomplish and the issues involved, as well as sensitivity to how your supervisor or senior manager will respond to your arguments. It also takes patience and perseverance, since you may not always get what you want. Remember, a positive working relationship with your boss requires trust and respect, both of which can take time to develop.

If you'd like to learn more about the art of persuasion, check out 30 Minutes to Get Your Own Way by Patrick Forsyth (1999) and Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (2nd edition) by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton (1991).

New manager questions
Steven Watson has 10 years of IT management and consulting experience and has developed an understanding of how the issues faced by IT managers differ from those of their nontechnical colleagues. As a new tech manager, do you have a question you’d like him to address? Send it to us via e-mail or post it in the discussion below.


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