The Fallacy of Buy-in
By Fred Darbonne
Stakeholders can blindside leaders with resistance to their strategic plans. Perhaps the leadership team met on a retreat with a consultant who stimulated their thinking with provocative questions. Possibilities emerged which they had never considered, and they identified resources they had not seen as capital. As they collaborated, comradery strengthened their team and fostered trust. They anticipated presenting their plan in an all-employee meeting, where the staff would recognize their great work and easily buy into their goals.
Applause meets their plan, as well as nodding heads, smiles, and what appears to be full support. Back in their departments, managers discuss relevant sections with their teams. The staff politely agree on its merits. People parrot its wording. After all, who wants anyone to think they are not with the company’s program?
But leadership failed to gauge their trust level with stakeholders, particularly the internal people whose cooperation is critical to success. They didn’t consider the impact of their initiatives on the ones who do the work. Those closest to the tasks find their insights ignored, and anxiety infects the organization as staff wonder where the plan is taking them. Deadlines get missed, and steps don’t get implemented.
The leaders are perplexed because they assumed that the staff would surely “buy-in” to their plan and support it. What they overlooked is an axiom of human nature: People are more prone to support a plan they have had a part in shaping. The leaders didn’t tap into the “wisdom of the crowd,” as James Surowiecki (2004) argued. By excluding stakeholders from the process, they failed to gain the ground support for the plan’s successful implementation.
We should remove “buy-in” from our vocabulary because it is pregnant with negative connotations. People know when someone is trying to sell them a bill of goods. A lack of transparency undermines trust. Disengagement seeps in when some stakeholders are excluded from the planning process, or decisions get made about their work without their input. The term “buy-in” itself has negative associations. In contracting, buy-in refers to the submission of an offer below estimated costs with the intention of increasing the price after the contract is awarded, or to cover losses in the pricing of subsequent contracts. In investing, “buy-in” occurs when an investor is forced to repurchase shares because the seller did not deliver as agreed. Not the best overtones for building trust.
Two systems operate in every organization: the formal decision-making system and, below the surface, the emotional system that drives organizational behavior. Peter Drucker famously observed that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The most well-crafted strategies are likely to derail if the organizational culture is not partnered with strategy and acknowledged with serious consideration.
Culture is our shared mental image of who we are as an organization and how we do things. A critical task of new employees is to read cultural cues and learn “how things get done around here.” Working with this shared image is at the heart of organizational change and effective strategic planning. Culture is the emotional system below the surface that drives organizational behavior. The organization’s emotional system is always more powerful than the formal structures and will kick into gear when threatened by change or plans that require adaptive responses from individuals. This emotional system has been called the “second order machine” driving organizational behavior, much like the operating system of a computer.¹
Culture doesn’t need to be the enemy of strategy. By enlisting all the organization’s stakeholders—tapping into their shared wisdom—culture is made an equal partner with strategy and change. Stakeholder inclusion brings their collective intelligence to the table and factors critical insights into a desired organizational future. Inclusion fosters stakeholder engagement, a prized yet often elusive dynamic in organizations. And this eliminates the need to coax buy-in from those who have participated in the process from the beginning.
¹Jamshid Gharajedaghi, Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity 3d ed. (Burlington,MA: Elsevier, 2011), pp. 64-8.