How Do I Get My Boss to Approve My Idea?

Last Updated May 5, 2009 2:48 PM EDT

Dear Stanley,
How do I make my boss think my new idea is his idea? That seems to be the only way he will approve an idea.
Creative but Quizzical

Dear Quiz,

You obviously have a subtle sense of senior management that will stand you in good stead throughout your career. Congratulations. A good portion of solving this problem is in just having the insight to ask the question. So you're halfway home!

Making senior officers believe that an idea is theirs is a key part of managing up, a topic that is dealt with at some length, and with huge amusement value, in my indispensible guide to the subject, Throwing The Elephant: Zen and the Art of Managing Up. Because we're in a recession and everybody is looking for value, however, I will give you a small peek under the circus tent in this venue.

The essence of all managing up is recognizing the power and weight of the elephant in the room -- in this case, your boss, who must feel that everything good in the world, including ideas, flows from him. You don't get anywhere by pushing an elephant. Or by pulling it. Or by yelling at it. Or by walking away from it in a huff. You can only train the elephant by recognizing your relative size and heft and using it to your advantage. Although very large and heavy, elephants are also fearful of many things, and have an intense need to be fed, watered, and sung to sleep when the day is done. Those who can do all those things become very important to the elephant and indispensable to its existence, thereby ensuring their own.

In this case, let's look at the problem. Something needs to be done. An idea is called for. No idea is acceptable to the elephant that doesn't emanate from it. You have several things on your side:

1. Elephants believe all good ideas comes from them;

2. If you tell an elephant, therefore, that the idea did come from him or her, they will be inclined to believe you;

3. Elephants have very poor memories; and

4. Elephants like to be congratulated.

Knowing these four things, a strategy becomes clear: First, present the elephant with a list of ideas that you claim were generated in discussions with the elephant: "Larry, I've taken the liberty of jotting down some of the ideas that have come up in our conversations. I hope I captured your thoughts adequately." Next, allow the elephant to take some time to peruse the list and choose an option. Finally, inform the elephant that the option they have selected -- which was based on their own idea, generated in some mythic past discussion -- has been adopted and congratulate the elephant on the whole thing. There. It's done.

Remember also that elephants are top-heavy and pretty easy to tip over. But that's another story.