How Consultants Help Leaders Get Buy-in

By Randi S. Brenowitz, MBA, CMC and Marilyn Manning, Ph.D., CMC

This article appeared in the IMC Times Fall 2002

As the global marketplace becomes more dynamic and competitive, organizations must become more efficient, effective, and productive. To do this they need to become more dynamic and flexible and 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. The new leaders must have buy-in to the decisions being made rather than simply relying on their position in the hierarchy to get results. As consultants, we frequently find ourselves in the position of helping managers get buy-in for a variety of decisions and disciplines. We need to work with leaders and managers and help them understand that the four key ingredients to achieving buy-in that are discussed below.

Safe and Trusting Environment
Creating a safe and trusting environment involves people's willingness to take some risk and expose their own ignorance or their unpopular opinion. When leaders are willing to ask questions and admit that they do not have all of the answers, members of the team will be more likely to do the same. Consultants can help leaders model this behavior in their organizations as a key first step to building a trusting environment.

A safe and trusting environment does not mean that each member of the team agrees with everything being said by everyone else. Some conflict is both inevitable and even desirable in every team. This will feel counter-intuitive to many leaders and we need to help them realize that 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 are ready to buy-in -- both to decisions and their 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 is 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. You may want to 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: You should 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. Communications and Follow-up: No one likes surprises, so open lines of communication, both formal and informal, are essential for assuring 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. Many leaders confuse consensus with a unanimous vote. We may need to educate them and their organizations that consensus is actually an agreement to move forward with a decision each member of the group is willing to 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. It takes time, however, so it 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.

The most significant help that consultants can give to leaders is the understanding that 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


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