A quick note before we get started: this post does NOT address workplaces where there is overt racism, sexism, or any other kind of discrimination. If you're in that situation, run like hell as quick as you can find a new job. Life's too short and precious to put up with that.
Ever felt like your company doesn't listen to you? That your managers ignore your brilliant ideas? That your company would be so much better off if they'd just act on your recommendations? Here's the brutal truth. It's not them. It's you.
I used to blame and get frustrated by others too. I'd criticize senior management as inept and out of touch with reality. But over time, I realized that while I couldn't change them, I could change my approach. I began adjusting things (more on that below), and I actually started getting traction. Lots of traction, actually. I became reasonably effective at gaining support for my ideas, and it paid off immensely.
Now that I'm one of those "inept, out of touch" senior managers, I see my colleagues making some of the same mistakes I used to make. Consider this my public service announcement for those caught in the trap of blaming others for their ineffectiveness. And, it serves as a reminder for me to avoid backsliding, as we are all prone to do.
Here are the most common self-sabotaging roadblocks, and how you can overcome them.
1. Self doubt
2. Bad/superior attitude
3. Too much information/detail
4. Not understanding the broader context
5. Not using language management understands
1. Self Doubt
Deep down, we're all riddled with self doubt, even (especially) those who are so vocally self-assured. We constantly worry we're not good enough for our job, our spouse, our parents, our kids. Doubt is a cancer that spreads and freezes us, stripping our ability to take initiative and suggest ideas. We're worried people will think an idea is impractical or even dumb. We're afraid people will make fun of us and put us down. Or worse, we're afraid people will like the idea, and we will fail implementing it.
But here's the dirty secret. We all feel this way. No one in the room speaks up for the same reason. And those fancy managers sitting in their fancy offices? They're afraid of failing too. You can be the one selling good ideas simply by coming forward.
You can push past this fear, but it's not easy, and it takes practice. I found my voice by pitching ideas to a safe audience of trusted colleagues and slowly working my way into more uncomfortable situations. Think of it as weaning off the old fears that paralyze you.
2. Bad/Superior Attitude
Attitude really is everything. It amazes me how many people undermine their good ideas by wrapping it in complaints or smug superiority. "Well, we could do this, but we always find a way to mess things up." "Those idiots upstairs don't know a good thing when they see it." "The only reason his ideas are ever listened to is he sucks up to his boss." You've likely heard phrases like this before.
Bad attitude is the ugly cousin of self doubt. It's another safety mechanism, meant to protect us from sticking our necks out and failing. But it thoroughly undermines your ability to build buy-in. Managers listen to and reward those that are eager to help make a difference to the organization. This doesn't mean you need to be a rosy optimist. Some of the most successful "intrapreneurs" are skeptical pragmatists. They just know when to turn a critical eye to things and when to put the pedal down and accelerate into an idea.
A good dose of self-awareness and mindfulness goes a long way here. Check in with your mental state regularly, especially in stressful office situations, and try to catch your negative self-talk before it comes out. Take a few deep breaths and adjust before you react and speak.
3. Too Much Information/Detail
Ever written or received that 10-page memo selling the next big thing? Everyone does this. If you have a deep technology background like me, you likely do this in spades. We want to be sure we've accounted for every angle, to show how smart we are that we know and thought of everything. Now that I sit on the other side, I realize that managers don't have the time, inclination, or technical depth to pick through your thesis for the nuggets of gold.
When it comes to selling your idea, less is more. Start with a laser-focused executive summary (more on what to include next), put a few key supporting details, and succinctly wrap things up. All those details? Save them for when people have questions, likewise starting with less information and offering up more only as needed.
This one takes practice and an eye toward relentless cutting of content. Having a trusted friend, colleague, or coach that reviews and edits your work helps as well. Generally speaking, you should cut your first draft at least in half. Always. Trust me.
4. Not Understanding the Broader Context
Now that I sit in the corner office, I realize that most of my past frustrations with management stemmed from my own lack of understanding with what it's really like to run a business. It's a lot harder than I gave it credit, and I didn't appreciate all the different levers to success and the numerous challenges that arise.
All businesses, no matter how large or small, are resource constrained. They lack enough money, people, organizational capability, and attention to tackle every great idea that comes along. The only way to succeed is to ruthlessly focus on the few key things that drive a business forward.
If you don't understand this dynamic and how your ideas fit into the broader context, you will constantly be met with responses like, "That's a great idea, but the time's not really right for it" or "That doesn't align with our strategy."
How do you learn about this context? Become an anthropologist. Study your organization, managers, and colleagues as though you were a scientist. What are the explicit messages about strategy and culture? What does the company say is important? What does your manager care about and reward? What are your competitors doing? The more you understand this broader tapestry, the more effective you become.
5. Not Using Language Management Understands
You can clear all the hurdles above and still trip up on this last one. I've seen it (and done it) countless times before. When you're pitching an idea, you need to frame it for your audience, not for you. While I'm sure your boss cares about technical superiority, improving employee morale, and what everyone else is doing, these outcomes don't truly drive managers to action.
The success of your pitch comes down to framing it for management, using their language. Will the idea drive new revenue? Aid in cross-selling? Save money? Improve efficiency and quality? You need to sell the outcome and benefits; the WHY not the WHAT. Again, a coach or trusted colleague is a good sounding board for how the pitch will be received by others.
Bringing It All Together
The reality is the bar is pretty low. The vast majority of people suffer from one or more of these stumbling blocks and undermine their ability to sell their great ideas. If you can master, or at least passably manage, them, you're in a rare minority and will be a breath of fresh air for your company. You'll find your ideas gain traction, you become known as the person that gets things done, and your credibility builds and helps sell your next great idea. It's a virtuous cycle.
I ask but one favor. As you rise within your organization, remember how these weights held you down, and give others a helping hand too. Business is not a zero sum game. We all rise together.
Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down by John Kotter and Lorne Whitehead
Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation In Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio
I've distilled over 20 years of lessons into bite-sized actionable articles for you.