How Leaders Get Buy-In

by R. Brenowitz & M. Manning

This article appeared on in July 2002, in Innovative Leader in February 2003, and in Supply Knowledge in the May 2003 issue.

As the global marketplace becomes more dynamic and competitive, organizations must become more efficient, effective, and productive. To do this they need to move away from a “command and control” leadership style. The role of the manager is shifting to that of a team leader and team builder. New leaders must have buy-in to the decisions being made rather than simply relying on their position in the hierarchy to get results.

Safe and Trusting Environment
A safe and trusting environment is a necessary precursor to achieving buy-in. This involves people’s willingness to take some risk and perhaps expose their own ignorance or their unpopular opinion. Our survival instinct leads us to avoid or minimize risk when we are feeling unsafe. Employees who experience their work environment as risky put a lot of energy into avoiding those risks rather than taking them. High trust is the condition that supports and enables high risk-taking.

When team leaders are willing to ask questions and admit that they do not have all of the answers, members of the organization will be more likely to do the same. If leaders implement and stick to team decisions, members of the group will be more willing to express their ideas. When leaders model positive behavior in their organizations, they are taking a key first step to building a safe environment.

Having a safe and trusting environment, however, does not mean that each member of the team agrees with everything being said by everyone else. Some conflict is both inevitable and desirable in every team. How this conflict is handled makes the difference in what type of environment is created.

Disagreement among team members may point to problems that were previously unrecognized, and can lead to creative solutions. Some level of productive conflict should be encouraged, with the understanding that too much conflict can weaken trust and destroy the team.

Once a safe and trusting environment is created, people will be more willing to show their vulnerabilities, ask questions, request, and experiment with new ideas. At that point, they are ready to buy-in -- both to the decision and its implementation.

Agreements and Norms
Another key element for achieving buy-in is a strong set of agreements and norms about how the team will behave and how the members will treat each other. If a team doesn’t have clear, measurable agreements or norms, it should consider holding a session to develop them. The following 4 steps may prove helpful at such a session:

  1. Have each individual submit the five values that are most important to him or her in the workplace. Examples would be “honesty,” “accuracy,” “teamwork,” “risk-taking.”

  2. As a group, prioritize the values and choose 3-5 everyone can agree to.

  3. Discuss each value and why it’s important.

  4. Identify which behaviors and actions reinforce this value, and which behaviors can undermine it or are non-reinforcing.

For example, “respect” may be one of the values agreed to by the team. It’s needed to build loyalty and mutual trust, key ingredients in getting buy-in. We can reinforce respect by seeking others’ input regarding decisions that may affect them. On the other hand, we undermine respect when we change direction without giving others an explanation.

It may prove to be more manageable to set only a few ground rules at a time and then to build from there. When the team keeps its focus, the chance for success is greater. Consider asking your team: “What are the behaviors our team needs to focus on for the next quarter?” When a team fully participates in defining and enforcing the norms, a new level of ownership and buy-in is possible.

Readiness and Follow-up
When decisions are reactive and not well planned, you may find yourself stuck in a defensive cycle. Many employees view rushed decisions as a threat and become defensive, reacting with a range of behaviors from blaming to avoidance. On the other hand, when a decision-making process is well planned, your team can function much more productively.

The following steps should help you get your team open to and ready for the decision-making process. Your team may resist participating because they are suspicious or fearful of the impact or risk in certain decisions. Part of readiness is alleviating fears as much as possible.

  1. Establishing Benefits and Needs: Work with the team to identify major issues, articulate timelines, and assess resources needed to come to closure.

  2. Readiness: Discuss past decisions and learnings. What has worked well and why? Which have failed and why? Make sure you give people ample time to talk about resistance and fears, as well as what they expect from you and from each other. Consider inviting your boss to a team meeting to articulate his or her vision for the organization and to help set the groundwork for the decision-making process.

  3. Congruence: Relate decisions to the mission and values of the team and organization. Mission-driven organizations are more efficient and achieve a higher level of buy-in than rule-driven groups.

  4. Communication and Follow-up: No one likes surprises, so open lines of communication, both formal and informal, are essential for ensuring buy-in. Formal communication forums include staff meetings, regular management team meetings, all hands meetings, internal newsletters, and one-on-ones.

These are opportunities to keep everyone informed, to celebrate successes, to offer some skill building, to hold open dialog, and to let people know how and when you have used their ideas.

Shared Decision-Making Process
When people participate in decision-making, they are more likely to buy-in to it fully. The time lost in collective decision-making is regained at the implementation stage.

The most common form of collective decision-making is consensus. Consensus is a mutual agreement among members of a group where all legitimate concerns of individuals have been addressed. It is not a unanimous vote, but rather an agreement to move forward with a decision each member of the group can support even if they think it might not be the best possible decision. Consensus building can foster creativity and innovation, cooperative attitudes, improved interpersonal communications, and increased accountability.

Trust is a crucial factor in building consensus. It is advisable to have as safe and trusting an environment as possible before embarking on a move toward shared decision-making.

In order for shared decision-making to stick and for people to be willing to buy-in, it is essential that all the right people be involved in the process. To assess who must participate in the decision-making process, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who must implement this decision?

  • Who is impacted by this decision?

  • Who has the most knowledge about the topic being decided upon?

  • Who can sabotage the decision once it is made?

  • Who are the key stakeholders in this decision?

Consensus requires a commitment to the process, active participation of the group leader and all group members, creative thinking, and open-mindedness. It takes time; therefore, consensus is not the best way to make insignificant decisions. Rather, it can be highly effective for those decisions that have significant impact on the work of the group where buy-in is essential.

Achieving buy-in is not a singular event. Rather, it is a continuing process that includes the elements described above. Ongoing solicitation and implementation of the team’s ideas promotes participation and can positively impact morale, productivity, and level of ownership and buy-in.


For more information on this topic,
contact Randi Brenowitz at
650-843-1611 or


Home About Us Services Clients Publications Contact Us

© 2001, Brenowitz Consulting. All Rights Reserved