Persuasive communication

Selling Upward: Persuading the Powerful

In order to get anything done in business, you have to persuade at all levels, but the highest stakes apply when we’re trying to convince the powerful—by definition, they’re the ones who control most of the resources you want. And if you want to convince the powerful, you have to realize that even though they put their pants on one leg at a time, they do think differently—and adjusting to those differences can make you more effective.

Quite simply, the more powerful think differently than the rest of us. According to Heidi Grant Halvorson’s book, No One Understands You and What to Do About It, putting someone into a position of power changes how they relate to other people. I’ll explain how and what that means to you if you are selling upward, whether internally to your own executives, or to high-level decision makers in a B2B sale.

According to the research cited by Halvorson, when people have power:

  • They act more selfishly. In one clever study, researchers observed the correlation between the model of vehicle and the likelihood of cutting someone off at a 4-way stop. Drivers of cars such as Mercedes and BMWs cut off other drivers 30% of the time, compared to 7% for drivers of lower-status cars.
  • They have less empathy for the person they’re talking to—except when empathy matters to their purposes. You may go into that big presentation hoping you’ll make a favorable impression on the big shot, but chances are they won’t pay much attention to you as a person at all. Halvorson says, “It’s not so much that they think they are better than you as it is that they simply do not think about you at all.”

The upshot of these two points is that the “A” of lean communicationAdding value—applies more than ever when persuading the powerful. Adding value, as I wrote last week, is “communicating useful information that produces improved outcomes for both parties while preferably preserving the relationship.”

As Halvorson puts it, “For the powerful, your instrumentality is key. Frankly, it is all that matters. What can you do to help powerful people reach their goals?”

She goes on to say: “Instrumentality isn’t about being nice—it’s about being useful.”

So according to Halvorson, the relationship is not only secondary, it’s irrelevant. I would not go that far, but I would agree that the best way to be seen as a person and to develop a relationship with someone of greater power is to first focus on adding value to them, and make that a prominent and early piece of your message. If you don’t show them briefly and clearly (the B and C of lean communication) that you can be useful to them, you won’t have much more opportunity to make that impression or develop that relationship. If you want to make a good impression, begin by talking about what’s important to them.

This takes us back to outside-in thinking and preparation: what do you know about what’s important to the other person? Do you know their goals, opportunities and challenges, and can you credibly connect your proposal to those?

Be useful, my friends.

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1 Comment
  • […] The Power lens. Power relationships affect how people view others, but it’s generally one-way: people in a one-up position tend to have a skewed view of the less powerful because they seem them primarily in terms of their instrumentality, or their usefulness to themselves; if you’re on the lower end you may not even get noticed enough too favorably impress them unless you can show them what you can do for them. For more on this, here’s an article I wrote recently on Selling Upward. […]

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