Getting Real Buy-in

Real buy-in means that others are internally committed to doing what you would like them to do. That is, others genuinely want to pursue the course of action you’re espousing. Such genuine commitment stands in contrast to what people usually do when their boss requests something – they comply. On the surface, compliance can look a lot like commitment, but the two are very different psychologically. Commitment leads to sustained action over time, even after the leader is gone. Compliance, on the other hand, is far less enduring, and may disappear altogether if the leader isn’t present or watchful.

Most people think buy-in is obtained through personal qualities such persuasiveness, passion, intelligence, charisma, and so on, or what might be called the sheer ability to “sell” effectively. As important as these qualities are for any leader, they’re secondary when it comes to getting buy-in. In fact, these qualities are more likely to generate compliance as opposed to real commitment. So, if these leadership qualities aren’t the primary means of generating commitment, what is?

The primary source of buy-in is choice. That is, in order to truly buy into a course of action, those from whom buy-in is sought must be given some choice about whether, or how, they will carry out the action. Think about it. If you have no choice in what you do, or how you go about doing it, how will you feel? If you’re like most people, your natural response will be to feel as though you don’t really own your actions.  It’s human nature. Ownership and commitment go hand in hand, so a lack of felt ownership almost always diminishes the commitment we would have – or at least could have – if we were given some choice in the matter.

So, if you find yourself wondering: “How do I get the members of my team to buy in to my plan?” The answer to your question, ironically enough, can be found by asking yourself two more fundamental questions. First, am I willing and able to let my team change, modify, or at least have input into the very plan I want them to follow? Second, am I willing and able to let my team change or modify the way I would like them to go about implementing the plan?

If your answer to both of these questions is “no,” it’s time to pause and reflect. Perhaps, given the nature of your role and your team’s function, there’s simply no way to give them choice in the matter. If so, fair enough. Go ahead and use your persuasiveness, passion, charisma, etc to get them to follow your plan.

On the other hand, maybe there is room for them to choose, or at least more room than you’ve been allowing. If so, your inability to get the buy-in you’re seeking may be the result of you constraining their choices more than is necessary. The more you can say “yes” to one or both of the above questions, and the more open you are to letting members help shape the team’s path or destination, the more you will get their buy-in. Actually, to be precise, you won’t be “getting them” to buy in. Rather, to the extent they step up and make the choices you’re offering them, they will buy in as a result of their own choice-making.