Listen To Ideas That Come from Below You in the Food Chain

There’s an interesting article in the January/February 2015 issue of The Harvard Business Review with practical advice on selling your ideas up the chain of command. Make sure you share this takeaway to get started: organizations don’t prosper unless managers in the middle ranks identify and promote the need for change.

Sure, the article is geared towards managers selling up. But executives need to pay heed to move their companies forward.

Are you listening CIOs? You need to embrace the need for change from those who work for you. Change can’t just come from the top, the Harvard Business Review points out.

It’s a philosophy similar to the old belief that sergeants run the army. Middle management has more contact with vendors and customers on a regular basis than upper management and C-level executives do.

As Susan J. Ashford and James Detert point out in their article, “Studies show that senior executives dismiss good ideas from below far too often, largely for this reason: If they don’t already perceive an idea’s relevance to organizational performance, they don’t deem it important enough to merit attention.”

How can you encourage your middle managers to speak up more freely? The authors suggest these five things need to be in place:

  • Identification with the organization
  • A positive relationship with their audience (i.e. upper management)
  • A sense of feeling safe within the organization
  • Belief their superiors will take action
  • An investment in the issue sufficient to sell it

So, now that you know that you need to listen to middle management, you should also know the seven most effective ways for middle management to successfully convey ideas to you. They are: tailored pitches, framed issues, emotional management, correct timing, involvement of others, adherence to norms, and solution suggestions.

Tailored Pitches: They are going to be framed to you based on your stance on an issue. Middle management that knows you well is going to focus on aspects you find most convincing or compelling. They’re going to use your beliefs against you, so speak.

Framed Issues: As the article observes, a new technological development might seems like techie trivia until the issue is framed to show how it supports a strategic goal. Successful pitches will tie it into already important organizational goals, too.

Emotional Management: It’s a bit of a misnomer because it actually refers to a lack of emotion that a good middle manager will show. As the article says, “Decision makers who detect negative emotions from subordinates offering input tend to perceive those employees as complainers, not as change agents.” You need to decide the employee’s motivation and look beyond their emotions if necessary.

Correct Timing: Good pitches are going to catch current trends. That means just because you’re not up to date doesn’t mean your middle management isn’t. Again, it gets back to the fact that they tend to be more in tune with customers and vendors.

Involvement of others: In effect, beware the lone wolves. Good pitches will involve managers who know how to teamwork to sell an idea. It usually means the pitch is going to be more complete, which is good, too, in terms of your time management.

Adherence to Norms: Good pitches to you will understand what data you use to make decisions. It’s interesting to note that casual conversation will play a big role in determining your approach. However, it will usually be followed up by serious proposals.

Solution Suggestions: Again, the best approaches from middle management won’t just identify problems: they will fix them too. Approaches without solution, frankly, are going to be a waste of your time and will quickly identify management not invested in solutions.

Keith Griffin
Keith Griffin is an award-winning business writer and editor with more than 30 years experience as a journalist. His work has been published in The Boston Globe, Medical Economist, Good Housekeeping, About.com, the Hartford Courant, CT Law Tribune and numerous other regional publications.