This is a guest post I wrote for the excellent thoughtLEADERS Blog:
A good friend of mine, “Tom,” recently brought a product to his boss’s attention that would allow his company to take its social media efforts to a whole new level, and might significantly improve their image. It would be an industry first, and not entirely without risk, but with huge potential payoff.
After hearing his pitch, his boss asked, “Are any of our competitors using this?”
“No,” Tom replied, feeling that this was a strong selling point – a competitive edge.
“Well,” his boss responded, “then I don’t think we want to stick our necks out and be the first, do we?”
Tom was disappointed, but not at all surprised. For every manager out there trying to encourage innovation, there seem to be ten standing squarely in the way of it. I spend a lot of time talking to people about motivation and growth, and everywhere I go, I hear complaints like:
I just can’t get my boss to take the risk.
There’s a huge opportunity here, and we’re missing it.
We just follow trends, we don’t ever create them.
It’s incredibly frustrating to know you have a real winner of an idea on your hands, something that could really shake things up, and not be able to get it past your Nervous Nelly of a boss. Not that the cautious, conservative approach doesn’t have its place – but ultimately an organization cannot grow without embracing some risk.
(The recent recession has only made matters worse. People don’t want to rock the boat at a time when jobs are hard to find. Unfortunately, they forget that without organizational innovation and growth, no job is safe for long.)
The problem, in a nutshell, is this: when they make decisions, many managers focus much more on what they have to lose than what they might gain.
When we see our goals in terms of what we have to lose, we have what psychologists call a prevention focus. Prevention focus is about security, avoiding mistakes, fulfilling responsibilities, and doing you feel you ought to do. It’s about trying to hang on to what you’ve got, and it isn’t at all conducive to taking chances.
On the other hand, when we see our goals in terms of what we could gain, we have what’s called a promotion focus. Promotion focus is about achievement and accomplishment, maximizing your potential, and doing what you’d ideally like to do. It’s about never missing an opportunity if you can help it.
In my book Succeed, I describe research showing that while promotion and prevention-focused people can be equally successful, they work very differently to reach their goals. They use different strategies, have different strengths, and are prone to different kinds of mistakes. One group is motivated by applause, the other by criticism and self-sacrifice. One group readily embraces creativity and risk, while the other prefers careful deliberation and the status quo.
So, how can you get your overly cautious boss to go out on a limb and embrace a great, albeit risky, idea? The key is to stop fighting his or her prevention-focused mindset, and work with it instead.
In the end, it’s all about language. You may be thinking of your great idea as an opportunity for gain, but you can always reframe it as an opportunity for avoiding loss. To persuade a prevention-minded person, you want to emphasize how a course of action can keep your company safe and secure – how it will help you to avoid making a terrible mistake.
For instance, you may be thinking of a new social media venture as a chance to get in front of the pack, but your boss might be more persuaded if you phrased it as a way to not fall behind. (“Everyone is moving in this direction. It’s inevitable. We could lose market share if aren’t prepared for the future.”)
In general, it’s important to frame your pitch in a way that is persuasive to the kind of person you’re talking to. Figure out if the decision-maker is promotion or prevention minded, and pitch accordingly. Remember that even the most timid, prevention-minded person will gladly take a risk, once you help him understand why it would be a greater risk not to.