How to Send a Subtle Message

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Franke James, MFA

Dilemma: You're a project manager, and you're in dire need of resources to complete the project. You've told your boss several times that you need more resources, but she hasn't acted on it. You want to go over her head, but you don't want to seem to be doing so.

Who hasn’t experienced mysterious foot-dragging by a boss? It’s the type of scenario that can leave any good manager scratching his head and wondering why his pet project—which was once hailed as mission-critical—has now ground to a halt. How do you remind your busy and distracted boss of your pressing need, without pestering her or alienating her? Is there a clever way to send a subtle message so that your boss will wake up and take action—without you "ordering" her to?

Well, perhaps. But it’s tricky, and not without risk. If your boss has a brain, chances are she will put ‘two and two’ together, and see the subtle message for what it is: A flashing neon reminder that you want her to do something! Will that be welcomed? Or resented?

Reminder Methods 

Let’s explore a few "reminder" methods, assuming that your boss is not responding to direct requests…

a. The-accidental-related-news-article-gambit
To trigger your boss’s memory, you could "accidentally" leave a related news article on the boss’s desk. That might work, but on the other hand if any mention of the topic is like nails on a blackboard, then the boss’s reaction could be an irritating and shrill, “Who left this article on my desk?”

b. The-cc’ing-the-boss-just-to-stay-in-the-loop-ploy
With this ploy you are ostensibly just cc’ing the boss so she is in the loop about your team’s progress, not goading her to get moving. It might not cause any damage—however if your boss is inundated with daily e-mails (like most of us), unnecessary e-mail communications could be viewed as irksome. The boss may just press the delete key thinking, “This is the manager’s responsibility. Why are they bothering to cc me with this in-progress minutiae? If it was truly important the manager would address me personally…”

c. The-innocent-speaking-to-another-colleague-to-put-in-a-good-word-ruse
This ruse involves asking a trusted colleague to speak to your boss about your pet project. Of course, the success of it depends on several factors. Is the colleague truly supportive? Will he put in a good word? And even if he doesn't, will the boss appreciate him sticking his nose in her business? Depending on your corporate culture, and how "siloed" your departments are, it could backfire, eliciting a very defensive reaction: “What?!! Why is my staff talking to you about this project?”

d. The-kill-two-birds-with-one-stone-move
This move purports to be about efficiency. Since you are meeting with the boss anyway to discuss Project A, why not slip in a few comments about your pet Project X? You might get the answers you need. On the other hand the boss’s reaction might be, “Stick to the agenda. We’re talking about project ‘A’ not ‘X’.”

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The Underling’s Power Play

Assuming that none of the above reminder methods worked, or were rejected out of hand, what are your options?

Marching into the CEO’s office—even if you had tons of chutzpah and no fear of being unceremoniously booted out—might not be the best route. Even if the CEO miraculously agreed with you, and immediately ordered your boss to commit the resources, it would be a very heavy-handed and expensive pressure tactic. You would now have a boss who is quite likely furious that she was forced into doing your bidding by the CEO. Yes, you would have the resources for your pet Project X, but you would also have made an arch enemy. Not a smart office politics move.

So how can you go over the boss’s head without seeming to? How can you influence her to commit the resources? What tools do you have to influence her behavior?

Let’s state a few facts:
1. The boss is withholding the resources and you don’t know why.
2. You are holding the ball for this project, and for whatever reason, your boss does not feel responsibility for it.
3. The project is important to you, and its failure would reflect badly on you.

To motivate the boss to free up the resources for our project you need to recognize one of the basic principles of human nature: It is easier for us to do something if it is in our self-interest.

The Primary Objective

Your objective should be to move the boss from being an uninvolved bystander who feels she has nothing to gain, to an interested party who can see that for very little effort and reasonable cost expended, she will benefit nicely—or conversely, suffer if it flames out.

That sounds wonderful in theory, but how can you make it happen if she won’t even give the project the resources to get off the ground?

One word: influence. 

You need to get other people to tell her—without coercing them—why this project is a winner/important, and how she could benefit from its success (or be tripped up by its failure). However, if you go around the company actively lobbying key executives for the project (as in example c), would that succeed? In all likelihood, the boss would get wind of it, and could feel unduly pressured and uncomfortable.

How can you generate positive buzz without going behind the boss’s back? 

Your objective should be to create "positive buzz."  We want our project to move from "unknown and overlooked" to "being talked about" by others. But you need that to happen in an open and fully transparent way (skulking behind the boss’s back could come back to haunt you). You want to get people openly buzzing about your project, so that your immediate boss will realize that it is in her best interests to help it succeed.

Mash-up: 360 Degree Interviews and Brainstorming

So, how do you create that magic buzz? Let’s borrow some concepts from 360 degree interviews and mash them together with brainstorming sessions (à la lateral thinking guru Dr. Edward de Bono). The universal truth underlying this tactic is that almost everyone loves to share his opinions and will gleefully tell anyone all the things you he or she isdoing wrong (especially if he doesn't feel he will be stuck with the task of fixing the problem). Knowing this, here's how to move Project X into the limelight.

Step one: Inform the boss

Your first step should be to tell your boss what your plans are—highlighting for her the importance of innovation and feedback in the success of leading-edge corporations today. To warm her up, you could cite the statistic quoted in Michael E. May's The Elegant Solution (Free Press, 2007) that Toyota staff generate over one million new ideas annually, or dig around for a relevant statistic in your industry. Innovation is hot. Nobody but Neanderthals and Luddites can seriously be against innovation in the 21st century.

Your innovation pitch could go like this, “I realize you’re too busy to get involved in Project X, but I just wanted to let you know what I’m doing to ensure that it is a success.” (Your boss may yawn at this point because she doesn’t seem to care too much about the forlorn little Project X.)

You continue, “I am convinced that this project can deliver great value to the company, but I think it could also benefit from creative input from other folks. To gather that intelligence, I am planning on presenting it in a "Brown Bag Lunch Presentation" to anyone in the company who wants to sit in. Everyone can tell me what he or she thinks about the project, offer suggestions, and try and poke holes in it. You’ve welcome to get involved… Of course I’ll write up all the findings and report back to you...”

Step two: Creative brainstorming/innovation

Whether you have ‘Brown Bag Lunch Presentations’, a company Wiki, or a Creative Brainstorming Session, the basic idea here is to use a relaxed venue to inform others in the company about your project and invite their input on how to make Project X a winner, and deliver bottom-line value to the company (thus justifying the resources).

A brainstorming structure i use in creative projects with clients is threefold.

1. Imagine the ideal scenario for Project X if everything goes perfectly.
2. Identify the hurdles that could prevent Project X from succeeding.
3. Create an action plan with timeline, deliverables—and names attached.

This process—which draws on input from across the company, and from many levels, can actually identify roles and responsibilities that go far beyond your department. It may open your eyes to something your boss already knows but has been reluctant to tell you: That Project X will not succeed unless you have the support of marketing, or customer service for example. But it’s better to know that in advance, so you can take appropriate action—and try to build that support structure in now. 

Be Open to Criticism

Opening up your pet project to criticisms and suggestions across the company is not without risk. Just like those pesky 360 interviews, you actually have to be prepared to listen. Certainly, telling others about Project X may expose flaws—and divisions. But, if Project X really is a winner, delivering bottom-line value to the company, then it could be just the tactic to get your project "green lighted."  If your project is any good, this process should attract attention to it—and quite possibly some terrific cross-departmental suggestions on making it a success. And it will have another benefit: Identifying you as a forward-thinking, innovative manager who is smart enough to gather different opinions in order to make his project a winner.

Mission Accomplished?

By using this method you should have moved Project X from "unknown and overlooked" to "being talked about" by others, all in a transparent above-board way. Of course its ultimate success rests on your brainstorming session. Did it provide the evidence that Project X is truly worthy of the company resources? If so, the good word should get back to your boss from many sources and help her to see that it is in her best interests to ride this winner.

Subtle Messages Are a Two-way Street

So, let’s revisit the dilemma and the concept of the subtle message again.

Dilemma: You're a project manager, and you're in dire need of resources to complete the project. You've told your boss several times that you need more resources, but she hasn't acted on it. You want to go over her head, but you don't want to seem to be doing so.

Since you are a very bright manager, you will want to also consider every eventuality. Such as… perhaps your boss has known all along that you were trying to send subtle messages to her to move forward? But she, in return, has stubbornly been sending you subtle messages too. Frankly, she thinks Project X is a certified loser and she is purposely dragging her feet in the hopes that it will die.

Straightforward communication with your boss is obviously the fastest and best way to ferret out why your boss is not supporting the project. However when you are faced with a boss who refuses repeated requests for an explanation, then the brainstorming sessions may prove very useful to building buzz, identifying strengths and weaknesses, designing a bullet-proof initiative, and ultimately getting what you want: the green light.

About the Author(s)

Franke James, MFA, is the editor and founder of (est. 2002). James’s office politics advice and articles have drawn media attention in print and on radio and television. As an advisor, James has more than 18 years of business experience as an entrepreneur and creative communications professional.  She is also the inventor of  The Office-Politics® Game, a dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It’s used by HR departments and corporate trainers worldwide.