By Lois Kelly and Carmen Medina, co-authors, Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within
What’s the biggest obstacle you run into when you try to introduce new ideas or improve things at work?
That’s one of our favorite questions to ask the people who come to our talks and workshops about how to be more effective change makers — or as we like to call ourselves, “rebels at work.”
The number one obstacle: my boss. (The second is fear.)
So what do you do if you’re championing a new idea? Learn how to manage your boss — most importantly in these two ways: First, you need to understand what most worries your boss and find ways to ease those worries; second, you need to build credibility and trust.
1. Understand and address your boss’s worries:
- Not having all the answers
- Wants to avoid criticism
- Stay out of the drama. Focus on the desired outcome, not the problem or its origins.
- Show how your idea supports management’s agenda and makes your boss look smart.
- Help your boss present the idea to her boss.
- Wants to avoid risk
- Be sure you understand which risks most concern your boss. You may not understand her concerns.
- Talking about those risks and concerns will help you gain credibility.
- Determine whether your boss is confusing risk with uncertainty.
- Doesn’t want to waste time and resources on something that might not work
- Find data and research to support your proposal, even if it is anecdotal.
- Be clear about the challenges, which shows you’ve thought through the realities of making the idea work.
- Suggest an experiment to learn and test, with finite timeframes and metrics to gauge results.
2. Build credibility and trust
Don’t mock your boss
Whatever you do, don’t criticize your boss for being cowardly or too concerned about her own job security, because after all, that’s only human. The fact that you both want job security may even provide a good basis for developing a common understanding. Neither of you want to hurt your careers. If you can establish that as a given, perhaps your boss can begin evaluating your ideas on their merit.
Don’t go over your boss’s head
This can seem like the only option if your boss is recalcitrant, particularly if he forbids you to discuss your ideas any further. Going over your boss’s head is like trying to draw to an inside straight in poker: the chances that it will turn out well are very slim and, when it doesn’t work, you end up with the worst cards at the table. Once a rebel shows one member of a management team that he can’t be trusted, he has almost certainly tarnished his reputation with every other boss in the organization. If you decide to do this anyway and it turns out badly, apologize sincerely and profusely. It’s your only hope.
Don’t worry about your boss stealing your idea
We often hear rebels complain that management took their ideas and didn’t give them enough credit. Our take? When a manager likes a rebel’s idea enough to steal it, that’s a rebel win. As rebels, we often have to swallow our pride and savor the internal satisfaction that comes from knowing that we planted the seed.
If it’s any consolation, remember that as a rebel you are likely to have new ideas, spot emerging trends, or figure out problems unimaginable today. Our creativity and vision form the pattern of our lives. They are a renewable resource we can depend on. Our creativity is our safety net.
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