Interview: How to get your boss to listen

Feel that your boss or colleagues just aren't listening, no matter how skillful your argument? You may be focusing too much on content and not enough on how you deliver your message, writes Gary A. Williams in this month's Harvard Business Review. Williams and Robert B. Miller, who are CEO and chairman, respectively, of Miller-Williams Inc., a San Diego-based customer research firm, studied the decision-making styles of more than 1,600 executives and found five distinct types.

Williams spoke with Computerworld's Kathleen Melymuka about how to get through to each of them.

Q: What's the No. 1 mistake people make when they try to persuade their boss to do something?A: One of the most common values we are taught is to treat others as you want to be treated. While this makes sense for society as a whole, it is the No. 1 mistake most people make when trying to persuade their boss. For example, most IT people present their case for projects in the same way they view them which is probably from a technology viewpoint. The principle that emerges from our research is to change the way you persuade by being adaptive to the receiver's style, not yours.

Q: What types of decision styles have you discovered?A: The five types are Charismatics, Thinkers, Skeptics, Followers and Controllers. Since we released this study nine months ago, we've found these to be constant in virtually every business culture around the world.

Q: Charismatics sound like the most fun to deal with.A: Charismatics are the easiest to persuade and, because of their energy, tend to be a joy to deal with.

Q: There must be a catch.

A: The trouble comes in trying to gain their final commitment. They often love the technology and can quickly make the connections to how it will positively impact the business. But they also are notorious for not sweating the details. Instead, Charismatics tend to surround themselves with others who do sweat the details. And that's where the IT projects get shot down.

Q: You say Thinkers are the most difficult to understand. Why?A: Thinkers are the most balanced in their decision-making and tend to absorb an enormous amount of details. In many respects, they are the perfect match with a Charismatic decision-maker. Thinkers will constantly shift their perspective and often try to persuade themselves for and against a project. A Thinker would examine an IT project from multiple perspectives: technology, user, financial and so on.

Q: What's the best approach to take with them?A: You need to show that you've examined each perspective thoroughly. First discuss your process of the examination Thinkers love process and then discuss your evaluation of each perspective. Be sure to point out where you do or don't have data. It's OK to not have data, but it's not OK to miss a step in the process, like the user or financial perspective.

Q: Skeptics seem like a particularly tough audience.A: Skeptics operate on personal credibility. If you don't have it with them, find someone else that does and have them present the most critical part of your presentation. Essentially, you are looking for transferred credibility from the other presenter. Over time, you will then gain personal credibility with the Skeptic and be able to present on your own.

Q: How do I hold my ground without alienating a Skeptic?A: Don't ever try to take on the Skeptic, especially in public. Their personalities force them to want to always be right. The key to not alienating them is to correct their mistakes by giving them credit somehow. For example, "Are you trying to test me? I clearly remember you saying just the opposite in our last meeting."

Q: You say Followers like to think of themselves as Skeptics, but they're not. How can I tell the difference?A: Followers are the most difficult to recognize, because they often show a variety of types at various times. While Followers and Skeptics both need [you to have] credibility, Followers don't need it to be personal credibility. They will accept another company's success in their evaluation.

Q: Once I recognize a Follower, how do I persuade him?A: The key here is that, unlike the Charismatic, Thinker and Skeptic, the Follower will rarely, if ever, be an early adopter of technology. They want proof of success, and the more proof the better.

Q: Controllers tend not to listen. That sounds like trouble.A: You will never win with a Controller, so the best way to deal with them is to not deal with them. Controllers make decisions in a vacuum, although they often force you to generate a lot of activity by asking for data, proof, budgets, etc. Send them the data, but do your best to not schedule a meeting with them.

Q: There must be a way.

A: The only way to win with them is to play the waiting game. Wait for an event outside of their control that will force the Controller to take action a drop in revenue or a competitor's new product announcement.

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