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How to convince your boss

Leaders can be classified according to their decision making styles. Knowing the decision making style of your boss, helps you to use the best tactic, when you want to convince your manager about an idea, says Doctor Jarosław Kulbat, social psychologist from SWPS University in Wrocław.

The issue of influencing leaders touches upon a very delicate point, related to having power. Usually, power is associated with a possibility of influencing people rather than succumbing to persuasion of others, especially subordinates. Therefore, choosing an appropriate tactic of influencing your manager requires an excellent judgement, because choosing a wrong method may be disastrous. After a research survey, which included over 1,500 managers from various industries, such as automotive, sales and advanced technologies, Gary Williams and Robert Miller proposed an interesting approach to choosing tactics of social influence, in organizations. Study participants were asked to describe how they make decisions at work. Based on these descriptions, Williams and Miller developed five main personality types and decision making styles.

I think therefore I question

The hardest to convince are managers, who can be classified as Thinkers. 11 percent of managers from the Williams’ and Miller’s research group belonged to this category. Thinkers are open to new ideas, but only when these ideas are well justified, because thinkers are risk avers. They take a while to make a decision, because they want to base it on the largest possible amount of data. They carefully analyze all arguments. They are mostly impressed by arguments based by empirical facts. However, they are skeptical about the provided information. In practice, the coworkers or subordinates of Thinkers sometimes have an unpleasant feeling that they are being interrogated.

If you want to convince a Thinker, you must be prepared to discuss at least several ideas based on examples or empirical facts. The strength of your arguments should justify the choice of one of the proposed ideas. Limiting the number of proposals to one could be perceived by a Thinker as a signal that you have not analyzed all possible options.

Psychological research on effective persuasion indicates that the key condition to successful influencing is aligning the form and the content of the message with the preferences, capabilities and motivations of the addressee.

I choose what I know

The largest group of managers (36 percent) participating in Williams’ and Miller’s study represent a Follower decision making style. They make decisions based on choices that they, or people that they respect, made in the past. Followers try to avoid risk. They are prudent and responsible. They prefer tried and true methods and recommendations as well as a proof of success. They want to feel that they are making the right decision. They derive this assurance from knowing that others made similar decisions in comparable situations. Occasionally, Followers welcome a new idea enthusiastically and with open arms. However, you should not mistake it for approval. They will quickly lose interest, if your justification does not include examples that the proposed solution was used by others in the past. Such arguments are most convincing for them and they tie a lot of weight to this type of information. This means that Followers are not particularly innovative. Maintaining what they have achieved so far is more important for them.

To convince a Follower, you must indicate when and where the proposed idea was implemented.

A “wow” factor is required

Approximately, every fourth manager in Williams’ and Miller’s study could be classified as a Charismatic. Charismtics are easily wowed by new ideas, because they like out-of-the-box solutions, but when the initial enthusiasm wares off, they become disinterested rather quickly. Charismatic managers often focus on the overall vision and they seem to ignore details or risks related to the proposed idea. The vision alone is not enough for Charismatic managers. They make final decision based on data analysis. To convince them, you must excite them with your idea and then direct their attention towards the expected results. The Charismatics react best to direct and simple arguments that are fortified by convincing examples of benefits that could be gained thanks to the proposed project.

The key condition to effectively persuade Charismatics is aligning the form and the content of your message with the preferences, capabilities and motivations of the addressee.

Seek and you shall find a flaw

Managers dubbed Skeptics constituted 19 percent of the group studied by Williams and Miller. Skeptics tend to approach new ideas very cautiously. Their criticism is particularly strong, when proposed solutions are not aligned with their own views on the world. They do not trust people, who bring them such ideas. To convince Sceptics, first you must build your credibility. The best way to do this is to get support or references from someone that the Sceptics already trust. Credibility is the necessary condition to gain their attention. Sceptics say what they think regardless of the reactions of others. They tend to be argumentative and authoritarian. They analyze data to find confirmation of their current views or to find reasons to challenge the proposed solution. They question numerical data, sources and interpretations. Their aggressive attitude may be intimidating, however it should not put you on the defensive. Sceptics want to know where the information supporting the presented ideas comes from. Therefore, you should find your arguments in sources, which Sceptics regard as trustworthy or you can refer to role models that they admire.

Don’t tell me what to do

Managers classified as Controllers try to limit their fear of consequences when making decisions. They do not like to feel unsure and they do not like dealing with ambiguity. They concentrate on facts and they carefully analyze arguments. They like to be in control of the whole decision process. They also like to feel that they are independent and they do not take excessive pressure well. When they do find themselves in such a situation, they strongly oppose it and are not likely to change their mind. They are careful, precise and analytical and they concentrate on details. To convince Controllers, you must create a well thought through argument that includes credible data.

Controllers expect details, but only when the presentation is given by an expert. Because they interpret everything from their own perspective, sometimes it is hard for them to trust arguments and data that are contrary to their views. They often are perfectionists, who are not interested in getting to know new people or making them comfortable. When they are faced with arguments that are contrary to their vision, they may become aggressive. Aggression towards people, who represent different points of view than their own, results from a suspicion that these people have bad intentions.

Controllers especially value their trusted advisors or independent experts. If you want to convince a Controller, you may want to seek the support of someone whom the manager trusts. It might be even better to ask this person to present your idea to the boss on your behalf. However, you should remember that putting an excessive pressure on a Controller may result in failure. You must give them time to change their mind on their own.

Psychological research on effective persuasion indicates that the key condition to successful influencing is aligning the form and the content of the message with the preferences, capabilities and motivations of the addressee. The taxonomy of decision making styles, proposed by Williams and Miller, provides many useful tips on the subject. By using their advice, you are increasing your chances for convincing your boss to agree to your idea. And I do not have to tell anyone that sometimes it pays to convince a boss to an idea.


The article was first published in the Polish edition of "Newsweek Psychologia Extra 4/18”.
Magazine available here »


jarosław kulbat

About the Author

Jarosław Kulbat, Ph.D. – social psychologist, Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology of the Wrocław Faculty of Psychology, at SWPS University. He is an independent trainer and consultant. Author of Korporacyjne Piekło (Corporate Hell) blog.

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