Selling your idea up the line

You’ve got this great idea for improvement at work. You can’t wait to pop into your senior colleague to tell her about it. She’s sure to be delighted, right? Wrong!


Worrying research shows that some managers are so insecure that they aren’t happy to receive unsolicited advice from subordinates.

So, if you’ve got this great idea before you rush off to share, think: “How secure does my manager feel receiving ideas they didn’t ask for?”



To succeed at work, you need to learn how to sell your ideas up the line. Some leaders lap up feedback and fresh thinking without feeling threatened. Others have delicate egos, and you could be walking into a bear trap with your brainwave for improvements.


It’s best to lay the groundwork for your approach by building trust and goodwill. Without that in place, your idea may not merely die a death; you may be harming your career prospects by even mentioning it. Crazy? Sure, but we all know those in charge are human and may be less receptive than we would want.

So how should you go about handing over your brainwave? The best advice is to do it privately rather than publicly, such as in a team meeting or a town hall event. Some thirty per cent of managers felt less threatened when employees spoke to them one-on-one than when they were made in front o other employees.


Another gem from research is that you should avoid mixed messages that combine the benefits of doing what you suggest with the risk of inaction.

You can imagine the scenario. There you are, coming on strong with your new idea. Then just as you’ve got the other person excited, you zap them with “and there’s, of course, a danger that we do nothing.” Great. Now the person will have to make a special effort to understand the nature of this so-called inaction or problem. They’ve also got to imagine an instant solution. Forget it.


Imagine you’re that manager. Now you are stuck thinking about why your proposal is better than the status quo. And we all know how tough it is to attempt to alter how things have always been. Faced with this increased cognitive work, is it surprising that these additional issues colour a manager’s evaluations of a new idea? That’s why perfect ideas often hit resistance and tend to be rejected.

Here’s the inside information about those managers. If they have a “promotion focus”, they concentrate on ideals and the future. They play to win.


But if they have a “prevention focus”, they’ll be preoccupied with staying vigilant and managing downsides. That is, they play not to lose.

So, work out what sort of manager you’re dealing with before offering up your idea for improvement. For example, a promotion-focused manager will want to know your concept presents a new and exciting opportunity with many upsides.

In contrast, a prevention-focused manager must know how your suggestion will help the team avoid problems or losses.


If all this seems a pain, research across several studies involving more than 800 front-line managers found that tailoring the message to a manager’s personality increases the likelihood that an idea will be endorsed by 15-18%.


You can’t be sure about your manager’s focus. But as in poker, there are “tells.” If this person has a prevention focus, they’re always concerned with obeying the rules and following standard operating procedures.

To sum up, cherish your great idea at work as it can potentially help your success prospects. Just prepare the ground carefully before you launch into delivering it.


For more ways to succeed at work, listen to my next Podcast! Every Monday.