Influencing Your Boss

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

By Perry McIntosh and Richard A. Luecke

Although there are other important people in your work life, your boss is special because he or she is both an evaluator of your performance and the main source of the resources and rewards you seek. Your boss may also be the key to your career advancement.

Being able to influence your boss is critically important to your success as an employee. The extent to which you can influence that person will go a long way to determining:

  • The level of resources you'll have available
  • The opportunities you'll have for career growth
  • The degree of autonomy you'll be given
  • Your financial rewards

Mutual success
If your boss trusts and has confidence in you, he or she will welcome your participation in planning and decision making, which will give you a major level of control over your life at work. In contrast, having no influence will reduce you to being an order taker—a person who simply does what he or she is told.

Influence with one's boss is based on a relationship in which the boss:

  • Trusts you
  • Likes you
  • Perceives you as similar in some ways to him or her
  • Believes you have good and accurate information to share
  • Depends on you to complement his or her strengths
  • Is persuaded by your reasoning
  • Considers you reliable and competent
  • Recognizes an obligation to you for valued favors
  • Believes you are working hard on the things that matter most to him or her

Tips to help you gain more influence with your boss:

  • Make sure your boss knows he or she can trust you
    Trust is important in any relationship, especially if you want to exercise influence. But trust is absolutely critical in your relationship with your boss. Your boss looks to you to accomplish your departmental objectives, thereby making him or her look good. More than that, your boss needs to know that you will always tell the whole truth, the good news and the bad. There must be no unpleasant surprises, especially public ones! Your boss will not trust you if you violate the chain of command and go around him or her to confer with his or her superior without first clearing it.
  • Focus on what’s important to your boss
    The starting point of an influential relationship with your boss is a clear understanding of your boss's goals and priorities, workplace concerns, and the pressures he or she is feeling. These are the matters that absorb your boss's attention and, in some cases, create anxiety. If you can accurately answer the following questions, you'll be able to recognize things you can do to help your boss:
    What are your boss's goals and priorities?
    —What knotty problem is he or she struggling with?
    —What pressure, if any, is higher management putting on your boss?
    —What accomplishment would make your boss a hero in the eyes of senior management?
    —What kind of relationship does your boss have with his or her immediate superior? Is it tense? Collegial? Subservient?

Adapt to your boss’s work style

Every boss has a preferred style for doing his or her work and dealing with subordinates like you. Do you know what that style is? If you learn your boss's preferences and adapt to them, your relationship will proceed smoothly and you'll be in a position to project influence. Work style covers a number of areas:

Information Preferences. Most bosses want to know about progress against deadlines, problems with important customers, new expenditures and revenue projections that may affect budget projections, and so forth. Talk to your superior about the specific matters on which he or she needs to be kept posted. You want to provide what is needed but not overload your boss with too much information.

Information Format. Some managers prefer a short, verbal report: “In a nutshell, tell me the current status of __.”  Others want written reports with plenty of supporting data. Be careful using e-mail to inform your boss of key information unless he or she has requested it; many busy executives are woefully behind on checking their e-mails.

Time Demands. How much time is your boss willing to give you? The typical subordinate wants more time with the boss than he or she is currently getting, but your boss may have other ideas. To maintain a good relationship, find a proper balance between your need for face time and your boss's ability or inclination to provide it.

Decision Making. Managers spend a significant percentage of their time making decisions. Some are little ones: “What's the best time to schedule this year's performance appraisals?” Others are big ones: “Should we invest $13.5 million in a new enterprise software system or continue with the current system—or seek a third alternative?” Your boss's decision process represents a potential portal for your influence. A sound decision process involves five steps, each of which represents an opportunity for you to contribute:

  1. Defining the problem or issue and its context
  2. Creating a set of feasible alternatives
  3. Objectively analyzing the alternatives
  4. Choosing the best alternative
  5. Implementing the decision

How to lose influence with your boss
In tennis, amateur players generally defeat themselves by making mistakes: repeatedly hitting the ball out of bounds or into the net. People who seek to establish influence with their managers likewise defeat themselves by doing dumb things, such as the following:

  • Being a habitual bargainer when assignments are given. Don't be a “What can you do for me?” person. Your boss will perceive dealings with you as a series of contests—for which he or she doesn't have time.
  • Upstaging. Yes, it's nice to shine, but your job is to make your boss look good. Don't steal your boss's thunder—it will only create resentment and make you seem like a rival, not a trustworthy supporter.
  • Self-promoting. It's fine to be ambitious, but instead of lobbying for attention or advancement, earn both through good work.
  • Failing to check in. Keep your boss informed, even if it's only a quick update at the end of the day. Failure to inform will reduce trust in you.

Your boss has a tough job. The typical manager's day is fragmented with phone calls, meetings, people problems, and many fires to put out. There's seldom time to sit quietly, make plans, and think through the many decisions that must be made. The more order and support you can contribute to this chaotic situation, the greater the influence you will have.

© 2011 American Management Association. All rights reserved. This article is adapted from Increase Your Influence at Work, by Perry McIntosh and Richard A. Luecke. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

About the Author(s)

Perry McIntosh and Richard A. Luecke Perry McIntosh has over 15 years of management experience at mid- and senior levels. Richard A. Luecke is a business writer and cowriter of the second edition of How to Become a Better Negotiator. Together, they are coauthors of The Busy Manager’s Guide to Delegation and Increase Your Influence at Work, from which this article is excerpted.