Persuading Your Boss

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Alan Axelrod

To succeed in business you must identify the people who have the greatest power and authority to propel your projects and promote your career. Bosses, of course, fall into this category. While it is certainly important to persuade others in your workplace, nothing is more important than to persuade your boss—every day.

Getting your way is not what your boss is all about. What your boss wants is her way, which, if she’s a good leader, is what she perceives will benefit the entire organization. Your goal, therefore, is wholly to identify what you want with what she wants and, by implication, with what will be good for the enterprise as a whole.

Before you approach your boss to sell an idea or a project or a point of view, be certain that you know what you are talking about. This does not mean that you have to write out a formal presentation every time you want to talk to your boss about something important. It does mean that you should diligently prepare for spontaneity. Avoid shooting from the hip. Do the necessary research. Learn something about your subject before you bring it up.

For example, suppose you want to persuade your boss to give you a raise. You could try spontaneity by blurting out, ‘‘My adjustable-rate mortgage has gone up, my daughter needs a load of orthodontic work, my old car is ready to bite the dust; please, please, please, I need more money!’’

Honest? Heartfelt?  Yes and yes. But this approach won’t do you a bit of good.

Count on it: Your boss just doesn’t sufficiently care about what you need. The far more effective approach is to avoid spontaneity and, instead, prepare a case so that you can present a persuasive argument demonstrating that it is in your boss’s self-interest to raise your salary. Here’s how:

1. Do some self-research. Compile a list of ways that you not only meet but exceed the demands of your job. Do not rely on your boss’s having kept score for you. Showing is always better than telling. Nouns and verbs are more persuasive than adjectives and adverbs. Mentally review the facts concerning people, events, and achievements that demonstrate your great value to the organization and, therefore, to your boss. Instead of using abstract adjectives like great, efficient, imaginative, create a presentation about your accomplishments that speaks the language of business—in other words, that talks in dollars: Two years ago, when you started in the department, sales volume was $XX. Today, it is $XXX. The promotional program you worked on was responsible for $XX in revenue last year. The new program slated for next year is projected to bring in $XXX.

2. Research what others—in similar positions, with similar duties, and in similar companies—get paid. If you discover that the average is significantly higher than what you currently receive, congratulations! You have found a point for your argument in favor of getting a raise. If you discover that your compensation is about average, hold this information in reserve. Should your boss point out that your compensation is about standard for the industry, you should be prepared to show the ways in which you outperform the industry standard. Of course, it is possible that you may discover that you are getting paid substantially more than the going rate. In this case, start researching the possibilities of a promotion rather than a raise.

3. Study the results of your research. Be ready to reel off your most important accomplishments—‘‘spontaneously.’’

4. Focus your research but don’t ignore key peripheral facts. For instance, you should be fully aware of how well (or how poorly) your company and department performed during the past year. Be sure that you know your job as well as its place in and impact on the company as a whole.

5. Before you meet with your boss, use your research to formulate a target salary level. Don’t just spin the wheel of fortune. Prepare yourself with a firm idea of what you can reasonably expect.
The subject of salary negotiation is just one example. Whatever idea, project, or course of action you want to persuade your boss to buy into, build your eloquence on a foundation of fact. Speak from knowledge.

Negotiating a Raise or Promotion
We have already discussed the preparation necessary for entering into a negotiation for a raise:  prepare yourself with the appropriate research. Having researched the case for your raise, call on your boss and take the following approach:

1. Decide not to ask for a raise but to negotiate for one. Asking sets up a one-way transaction. The boss gives, you take. From the boss’s point of view, it is not a very good bargain. As for you, it puts you in the position of a child or a beggar. In contrast, negotiation is an exchange, between equals, of value for value.

2. Make a specific appointment. Ensure that time is set aside. With luck, this precaution will avoid interruptions. The meeting should not appear spontaneous or spur of the moment. You don’t want to ‘‘surprise’’ your boss with a request for more money.

3. Think body language. Walk into the negotiation briskly and confidently.  Make strong and frequent eye contact. If your boss is behind her desk, pull your chair to the side of her desk (if possible) to avoid having the desktop serve as a barrier between the two of you. If you can’t sit to the side, get as close to the desk as you can. If feasible, sit higher than your boss or, at least, at the same level.

4. Begin by thanking your boss for the meeting. This serves two purposes. First, it is common courtesy. Second, the thanks should serve to remind your boss that, by agreeing to the meeting, she has decided you are sufficiently important to invest time in. Your thanks affirms the wisdom of her investment decision.

5. Make your case. Review your record, focusing on facts. Describe your achievements using nouns and verbs, instead of making mere assertions consisting of adverbs and adjectives. Make your pitch. Here’s how it might go:
‘‘Thanks for making time, Mary [if you customarily call your boss by her first name]. As you know, I’ve been with our firm for four years—two in sales, and two in marketing. This last year, I helped support the XYZ account, which we’ve transformed into a major profit center, generating $XX this last quarter. I have every reason to believe that the ABC account, which we’ve just taken on, will show similar results. I really appreciate the creative room you’ve given me, and I’ve used it to build our business.  Since I’ve been here I’ve amassed a great many responsibilities, and I think it is appropriate at this time to bring my salary up to the level of my responsibilities and my achievements. What do you think?’’

Here, you have presented your case in brief. Without mentioning a number, you have nevertheless outlined your expectations: a salary ‘‘up to the level of’’ your responsibilities and achievements. You have, that is, proposed an exchange of fair value for fair value. In addition, you have given your boss the feeling that she is both fair and astute. After all, she hired you, and you are producing excellent results.

You are reminding her that she has already invested in you, and that the investment has paid off. This opening makes a positive response possible, and the question at the end of the appeal actively engages the boss’s thought. No demand is made. Instead, this argument shifts the focus from you to your boss, subtly translating your self-interest into terms of her self-interest and the interests of the organization.

Expect resistance, the commonest form of which is a bid to delay consideration. Your boss may reply that she can’t consider the request now or that it will have to wait until later. Respond by negotiating for a specific appointment date for the salary review:
‘‘I see. Let’s set a date for the discussion, then.’’
‘‘Can we set up a meeting now for a week from Monday?’’

Don’t leave with nothing more than a vague plan to meet again ‘‘later.’’ Make an appointment.

The hardest form of resistance is the outright no. The answer may be final, as far as this particular discussion session is concerned, but don’t let it be the last word.
Boss: I just can’t accommodate you at this time.
You: What can I do to make it possible, say, in another three months?

Remain engaged. Use the negative response to gain insight into your place in the organization and to learn what your boss really needs and how you can be successful next time.

And remember, the most persuasive argument you can make with any supervisor or boss always looks toward the future.  While past performance can provide good evidence to build a persuasive argument, the past should never be the thrust of your communication.  The future is promise, and promise is the very meat of persuasive discourse.  If things are good now, argue that you will make them even better tomorrow.  If they are not so good at the moment, persuade your boss that they will improve—tomorrow—because of you.

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©2007 Alan Axelrod.  All rights reserved.
Adapted, with permission of the publisher, from Getting Your Way Every Day:  Mastering the Lost Art of Pure Persuasion (ISBN-10:0814473350), published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

About the Author(s)

Alan Axelrod Alan Axelrod is the author of many popular business and reference books, including the BusinessWeek best-sellers Patton on Leadership and Elizabeth I, CEO.  This article was adapted, from his recent book Getting Your Way Every Day:  Mastering the Lost Art of Pure Persuasion (AMACOM, 2007).