Making the Best of Influencing Up

It doesn’t really matter who we are, we always answer to someone. My sister, after a spin as a bartender and a stint in corporate life, eventually found her way to the COO position of a tech startup because she was tired of having a boss. Then she discovered that even as the COO, on equal footing with the CEO, she and her partner still had to answer to investors. Kara and I might be the owners of our business, but we still have to answer to our clients. Our young cousins in high school – well, they answer to their parents. Hate to break it to you: you will always have people you answer to.

At wolf & heron, we talk about how to influence the people around you – inspire them to your point of view and get them excited about your mission – but today is all about how you influence up. The question we pose today is simply, “How should we think about influencing the people we’re supposed to answer to?

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Here are four tips that might work for you:

Acknowledge they’re answering to someone too
Every person has a mission they’re going after, and people that are holding them accountable along the way. Get to know the primary pressures on the people around you. Who do they answer to? Sometimes it’s obvious – your boss probably has a boss too – but other times the answer to that question isn’t immediately clear. Who do your parents answer to? Their parents, their neighbors, their spiritual leader, their friends? Are your investors risking their personal money, or are they representing a fund? Whoever these people are, they’re also exerting a significant amount of influence on the person you’re trying to influence, so pay attention to who they are, and get to know what they’re trying to accomplish.

Recognize information asymmetry
The trick with influencing up is that your boss or your parent or your investor typically has very different information than you have, and a very different frame of mind. Recognizing that right from the get-go is important, and figuring out how to close that gap as much as possible will serve you well. If you want a raise, remember that your boss simply can’t think about you and the work that you do in a vacuum. (S)He also has to consider how much everyone else at your level is paid, what the official company policy is around compensation for your level, what the market values your skill set at, etc. etc. etc. The list goes on. Even though she may want to give you a raise and think you deserve it, there are several other considerations you have to keep in mind that are outside of you – and you probably don’t have direct, first-hand information about it. Arm yourself with the information you CAN get access to, and then, here’s a thought… ask the person you’re trying to influence about the other information they have! What else do they know that’s relevant? What considerations are they making? You might be surprised what you can learn simply by opening up the conversation. 

Appeal to their values
This is where the real fun happens. We talk about values all the time – how to get clear on them, how to use them in your own decision-making – but when you’re influencing other people, you want to talk about your needs in terms of the values that matter to THEM. Sometimes their values will be influenced by the agendas of the people they answer to, other times it’ll come from whatever worldview they have – the point is you have to figure out how to frame what you want in terms of what THEY WANT, and using one of the values they hold most dear is a really good place to start.

Make it Their Idea
I offer this tip with a caveat. One of the big challenges women typically in the workplace face is the fact that they aren’t recognized for the ideas they have and the value they bring to the table. So for the women out there, keep fighting to have a voice and be recognized for your accomplishments!

That being said, sometimes you might make the decision that the bigger picture is more important than necessarily getting the credit. This is when it’s a great idea to let your manager, or parent, or whomever it is, come up with the idea themselves. One tried-and-true way to make this happen is to ask for advice. Present the problem, discuss the ways you’ve already tried to solve it, and then ask for suggestions. Don’t be a naysayer to all the ideas (you might be surprised what gets suggested) but you can certainly keep asking probing questions that’ll guide the person down a path. Alternately, you could present the problem with three possible solutions to try. (Check out Influencing Outcomes by Carefully Selecting Options for more info on how to do that effectively.) This gives you more control over the options – just be prepared for extemporaneous conversation on alternatives that might pop up.


Influencing up the chain is a subtle art that takes tons of practice. Experiment with these tips and tricks – some will work on your specific influence objective better than others.

 -- Stephanie Judd, cofounder, wolf & heron