How to negotiate with powerful people

There are a number of different strategies which can be used to get powerful people to cooperate in terms of getting information, formal or informal approval to act, resources, introductions and support, according to Allan Cohen and David Bradford in their book Influencing Up. Even when a power gap seems intimidating or you have a negative relationship with a more powerful person, there are still things you can do to increase your chances of success.

The typical steps involved in influencing powerful people include:

  • Clarifying what you need and what your priorities are
  • Beginning with an assumption that the person you intend to approach is a potential partner rather than an adversary
  • Attempt to understand the person’s own priorities and what it is that they value (their “currencies”)
  • Determine what you can offer that the person will value, in exchange for giving you what you are seeking
  • Find out how to gain access to the person
  • Negotiate a win-win exchange

Part II of the book provides a more detailed discussion of how to build a partnership relationship with your boss, in which you focus on helping your boss succeed in exchange for him or her providing the resources that you need. Part II discusses ways of influencing powerful people in general, including identifying what the powerful care about and how to gain access to them. Various stories of people who have succeeded in influencing powerful people help to illustrate the principles.

Many people feel uncomfortable with the idea of dealing with power and exercising influence, and would prefer to simply let their work speak for itself. The authors provide a convincing demonstration of why such an approach is inadequate, and they provide a very helpful range of ideas for negotiating even in toxic situations. Anyone who has ever experienced frustrations with management or difficulties in seeking resources from a powerful person will find the book very enlightening.


  1. Dirk Schlimm says:

    John, I absolutely agree that everyone can do things to better advise, communicate, negotiate and work with powerful people. I am currently working on an Asia Pacific version of my book “Influencing Powerful People” (McGraw Hill, New York 2011) and would be very interested in your thoughts on which influencing strategies work best in your business context/world.
    Kind regards, Dirk.

    • john says:

      Dirk, Thank you for your comment. I am certainly no expert on influencing powerful people, but the steps outlined by Cohen and Bradford seem to work well in my limited experience. I have not had the opportunity to read your book, but from the reviews it sounds interesting.

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