Attempts to get buy-in for ideas we have passion and conviction for are often met with various forms of dismissal and feelings of dismay. When dissected, we learn how our instinctual drives and behaviors can actually hurt our attempts at buy-in, commitment, and advocacy. First and foremost, it's important that our passion and conviction is conversationally adjusted to a slower pace that matches undeniable skepticism. Secondly, various elements deserve close attention.
Note: For the purposes of this article, the terms idea and initiative will be used interchangeably.
1. PAINT A MENTAL PICTURE Painting a mental picture for potential advocates of a future better than the one they're headed for now, can be effective in gaining consideration for an idea. This prompts others to take the time to (1) analyze their current situation, and (2) decide if they’re dissatisfied with their current state. Dissatisfaction with a current state provokes motivation for change. For example, how will your idea help them overcome a seemingly insurmountable challenge? How will your idea impact an underlying issue with employee performance?
When painting a mental picture, be as detailed as possible. Think about a descriptive book you read. What kind of detail did the author use to get images into your mind? How you would describe in detail a picture taken at a fair, while talking to someone over the the phone? Use this same level of detail when painting a mental picture of a possible future based on the successful implementation of your idea.
2. UNDERSTAND DIFFERENCES IN THOUGHT WORLDS
Through what lens do your potential advocates see the organization's strategy? How do they see the organization's aura? What is your lens? Make sure you are speaking their language and finding alignment.
Here are some examples:
-Navigating organizational politics
-Seeking out possibilities and opportunities
-Risk-aversion, play it safe
-The employee experience
-Bound by time and resource scarcity
-Networking and personal brand
-Personal work passion
-Employees give time and labor for money, that's it
-Employees are our greatest asset, let’s develop them
-Just check the box and make it look good
-If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right
-Contributions to community are vital
-Company and product brand matter most
-The best employer brand attracts the best talent
While this of course is not an exhaustive list, it's a start. You can use this list better identify the paradigm of the person(s) to whom you’re bringing your idea.
*Note: You do not have to agree with someone's perspective, but you must be able to acknowledge it. For example, a true story: someone with extreme power and influence (let's call her Marsha) once said to an employee (let's call her Kayla), "I have zero respect for part-time workers. They have't earned their way yet, and they probably never will." Appalled by this absurdly ignorant statement, the Kayla simply said, "It sounds like you've really thought about that." In saying these words, Kayla did not have to go against her own values and agree. She also did not disagree, thus risking starting an argument and losing credibility with Marsha. Instead, Kayla acknowledged Marsha's perspective and was able to remain neutral. And since this statement provoked Marsha to continue talking about her viewpoint, Kayla gained a better understanding of Marsha's thought world.
3. ASK "WHAT" AND "HOW" QUESTIONS (and never: Why...?) Using "How" and "What" questions to better understand their thought world provides several advantages in leading effective conversations:
a) You’ll refrain from asking “yes or no” questions that can create unmovable roadblocks, especially from those most skeptical.
b) Others are much less likely to become defensive. Rather than having the knee-jerk reaction of trying to “save face”, they'll provide a more thoughtful response to your question. This allows the conversation to head to a place better than where it would have gone if a “why” question was asked. Consider the instinctual responses to these questions:
“Why are we focusing on the customer experience and not the employee experience?”
“How does focusing on the experience of our employees integrate with a positive customer experience?"
“Why are you using that PowerPoint theme for the presentation?”
“What do you like most about that PowerPoint theme?”
c) You'll get your audience to solve your problem of finding alignment:
“What do you see as the biggest challenge in our strategy of X?"
“How do we move past checking a box and create value?”
"How does the organization's strategy align with your personal values and professional aspirations?”
*There is a place for “why“ in leading an effective conversation. This is when you want someone to feel free to defend your position (i.e. “Why would this initiative be a better choice than initiative X, Y or Z?”). Note: This use of “How and What” is a technique (calibrated questions) developed and used by FBI negotiators. This, and other effective communication techniques can be found in the book Never Split the Difference, by Chris Voss.
4. DETECT INSTINCTUAL SOURCES OF INFLUENCE: PEOPLE VS. OUTCOMES What is your natural source of influence? Consider selling an idea, debating a perspective, or arguing for a course of action.
-Are you more likely to drum up support by pointing to past results, other data, and possible outcomes?
-Are you more likely to gain acceptance based on who else is on board, discussing what people want, and using personal influence and relationships?
We all gravitate towards our own instinctual influencing style. It is vital that you know your instinctive style. Why? Because if it doesn't match the influencing style of the person you're talking to, you could be harming your chances of gaining an advocate. Your idea is more likely to be dismissed without a second thought. Getting a potential advocate to give an idea a second thought is not manipulative. Rather, you're giving the idea a fighting chance, and it could very well be an idea that benefits your counterpart.
As noted by Lampel, Honig, and Drori (2014), there are countless examples in business history of creative ideas that never stood a chance. This isn't because they didn’t provide value, but instead because they couldn't make it past organizational barriers. As a respondent in Rosso’s (2014) study noted, “We can think of ten ways of hitting targets, but because of the organization we’re in, we can’t do half of these." Your goal is to get others to maintain objectivity, avoid knee-jerk reactions, and thoughtfully evaluate what you're proposing. They would want the same from you.
If your natural style is to point to results and potential outcomes, and you're talking to someone who prefers to know who will be impacted and what they’ll think about it, you’ll create a disconnect with the potential advocate you’re are attempting to win over. Alternatively, if your instinctual style of influence is to talk about others views and gain momentum by common acceptance, you'll fail to adequately speak the influence language of your potential advocate. Know your preferred style, know theirs, and adjust to meet their needs.
Once you identify the person's preferred influence style and paradigm, you can begin to tailor your most effective approach to lead an effective conversation. Doing these exercises for each potential advocate can take time, but likely just five to ten minutes each. Think about how much time you've spent thinking about and vetting your idea. Does it make sense to take a few hours to be prepared to promote it?
5. ALIGN YOUR INITIATIVE WITH ORGANIZATIONAL STRATEGY Differences in thought worlds will also play an important role in the perception of appropriateness and merit with your organization's strategy. While you may perceive a perfect fit, your audience may not. To be most effective, be sure to identify the “on paper“ organizational strategy as well as what your audience perceives the organizational strategy to be.
Some examples of organizational strategy: manage costs, diversify and grow revenue stream, have broad product offerings, cross-sell more products, improve R&D focus, acquire new customers through innovative offerings, improve customer service and satisfaction, reduce error rates, increase community outreach, attract and retain talent, develop leadership, and increase employee retention.
Once you've identified the organizational strategy as people see it, parse out the components, processes, and potential benefits of the strategy. Next, parse out the components, processes, and potential benefits of your idea. Identify the factors that align and create a message that clearly shows the alignment. Malshe and Sohi (2009) suggest the following approach:
a) Operate within a fact-based environment.
b) Share background data that is necessary for your audience to begin to vision out the strategy.
c) Present an unbiased rational assessment of the current situation and how the idea can resolve issues or provide a competitive advantage.
6. USE STRATEGY ABSORPTION TIME
We've all been in meetings when potentially game-changing ideas have been shut down without a second thought. Some people approach possibilities with the “lots of great ideas” or “spark and fire” approach. Their intent is “Here's an idea, I know it's not THE idea, it's just a concept. I'm throwing it out there as a spark to see how my audience can run with it and come up with something great that makes sense.“ Others approach new ideas presented to them as “Let's flush out why this idea doesn't make sense before we spend any more time on it.“ In other words, some of us are more possibility focused and others who are risk-averse and plan focused like to get into the weeds of an idea first. WE NEED BOTH KINDS.
Let's face it, some ideas are not well thought-out. Perhaps the ideas don’t offer the value perceived by the creator, they're aligned with personal as opposed to organizational goals, or they’re not aligned with the correct or a feasible organizational strategy. As Rosso (2014) found, “On one hand, creative teams don’t like to feel limited or have freedoms taken away. On the other hand, those limitations can provide helpful boundaries to both provoke and structure the collective creative process.” The creator can more effectively lead this process by incorporating strategy absorption time (adequate time to digest and think through new ideas).
Alternatively, some ideas do have tremendous game changing potential. The key here is for both sides to avoid knee jerk reactions. Rosso (2014) notes, “Of course, constraints are not always helpful. This research suggests that constraints which diminish process freedom or that are too severe will inhibit creativity. On the other hand, with the right kinds of constraints and an enabling team dynamic, creative teams can benefit considerably, in part because they are more likely to interpret constraints positively.” Again, we need both kinds.
Malshe and Sohi (2009) found strategy absorption time as a key factor in determining the success or failure of achieving buy-in. The “lots of great ideas“ person can benefit by letting the idea roll before it crawls, crawl before it walks, and walk before it runs. They must match the pace of skepticism. The “get into the weeds first” person can benefit from potentially great ideas by giving the idea a little time. If others are in the room, give them a chance for them to discuss it first. This person can also use “how and what” questions to better see the idea from the creator’s perspective.
Initial discussions with decision makers surrounding the idea can be brief and non-committal. Be sure to tie in the idea with the organizational strategy and the potential advocate’s goals right away. For example, “I was thinking about our focus on ABC and I have an idea that I'd like to 'market test' with you. I see some alignment with your personal goals of XYZ and I'm seeking out potential advocates. Maybe we can set aside time in three to four weeks to explore it.“ The key is to approach is to appreciate their busy schedule and priorities. This will provide the opportunity for them to evaluate a potentially helpful idea before dismissing it without a second thought.
7. TRY THESE ACTIVITIES FOR PRESENTING AN IDEA IN A MEETING The two following activities will feel uncomfortable, especially if you are not used to facilitating meetings or often attend “stiff” meetings. You’re also going to think others will feel awkward. You're going to think it's not “standard” for the types of meetings to attend. You’ll also worry that others will question your audacity to alter the “standard” meeting. That’s okay.
The reason I suggest the two following activities is because I’ve seen them work wonders for breaking down communication barriers, forming alliances, strengthening relationships, and even breaking down company political barriers. Not to mention, subsequent meetings have a much lighter feel. After conducting hundreds of trainings, workshops, and meetings, I found from written and verbal feedback that the most enjoyed and effective parts are the activities and paired or group discussions. Plus, people like to share their point of view and connect on a different level with others in the room.
The bonus is that after you run these activities just one time, incorporating them in consecutive meetings feels a lot different. Plus, you may be surprised at the positive feedback you receive after the meeting. Not utilizing some form of the following activities runs the risk of continuing to do the same behaviors, and continuing to meet the same forms of resistance.
Activity 1 - Paired Discussion of Why it's a Good vs. Bad Idea
This is one way to get your audience to give the idea a second thought before shutting it down.
Process: Those in the meeting break into pairs. First, they discuss together why the idea is a good idea (3-5 min) and next, why it is a bad idea (3-5 min).
This allows for more thoughtful consideration. The skeptics must first argue the merits of the idea, thus opening their perspective. They then have the opportunity to share their dissent. Those initially open to the idea get to share their favor for the idea, and then must get into the weeds a little. The'll better understand how their knee-jerk reaction of “for the idea” may be premature and require more careful consideration. You have now begun an effective vetting and advocacy process for your initiative.
Activity 2 – Taking the Opposing View Process:
Those in the meeting pair up. Person 1 takes the “for the idea“ stance and Person 2 takes the “against the idea“ stance, regardless of their actual sentiment. They then debate their assigned position (3-5 min). Then they switch assigned positions (for or against) and debate once more. Once again, this mandates that each person in the room actually defends both positions, thus opening new perspective in the idea vetting process.
Each of these activities requires only eight to ten minutes and the benefits can be exponential.
Note: The above paragraphs beginning with “The two following activities will feel uncomfortable… The reason I suggest…” is yet another technique (accusation audit) that is found in Never Split the Difference. An accusation audit is "a technique used to identify and label the negative sentiments likely harbored by your counterpart."
8. AVOID COMMITMENT DE-RAILERS Once you feel that buy-in is taking hold, either in one-on-one or group conversations with decision makers and stakeholders, use the "How/What x3" technique to build commitment.
“How will we allocate resources for this?”
“How do we keep this from becoming just a check the box?”
"What happens if we hit XYZ roadblocks?”
This will get your advocates to begin to vision out potential distractions and create variety in their responses to potential de-railers and future challenges to their commitment.
9. MAKE A CHECKLIST FROM THESE FOUR BUY-IN THEMES
Malshe and Sohi (2009) found four distinct buy-in themes that you can use as a checklist and guide in communicating and then rolling out your initiative.
a) Objectivity and Rational Persuasion Key components: Be objective and impartial, engage in fact-based discussion, explain rationale, and rather than try to sell strategies, tell why they are appropriate.
b) Sensitivity and Responsiveness to Reality Key components: Allow and encourage questions, appreciate differences in thought worlds, ask questions then thoughtfully hear answers, give others’ ideas adequate thought and response.
c) Involvement in Strategy Creation Key components: Allow others to “market test” your ideas, be open to negotiation, assess feasibility of strategies, make it known that they have a say in the process.
d) Positioning for Success Key components: Provide consistent support, add value to others’ efforts, remain focused on the competitive advantage that the initiative provides for the organization, department and stakeholders.
Turning these four components of buy-in into a checklist and incorporating into your strategic plan can set you and others up for success. Find ways to make these components come alive, create momentum, and take on a life of their own.
FINAL NOTES -Overall, be sure to understand as best you can the challenges faced by your advocates. These potential challenges include time and resource constraints, interoffice politics, personal life issues, conflict with career goals. Understanding these challenges will allow you to be more effective in your communication, timing, and behaviors, thus preventing unnecessary challenges for yourself.
-If you notice advocates who appear to be highly focused on the short-term, be sure to discuss short-term wins and benefits of the initiative. Loop in short term benefits to them personally, along with long-term objectives. Find out how the short-term outcomes of the initiative can make their days go a little easier and make them feel good about their own work. It’s important to address pragmatic legitimacy of an idea. “Pragmatic legitimacy addresses the question: what’s in it for me?” (Walker, Schlosser & Deephouse, 2014). This WIIFM question is one that will undoubtedly be on top of your advocate's mind. Address this effectively and you’ll be able to connect your ideas to their support and resources.
-Be sure to carefully evaluate potential ROI of your idea. Determining ROI for workplace initiatives isn’t nearly as easy as calculating ROI for putting solar panel on your house. Even the most seasoned HR professionals will point to ROE (return on expectation). ROI requires an in-depth look.
I’ll be writing a piece on ROI in the upcoming weeks. For now, consider Kirkpatrick’s four-level model which was created to determine ROE for workplace training.
Level 1: Reaction - How the course participants reacted to the training (satisfaction).
Level 2: Learning - What learning took place (pre and post-training tests).
Level 3: Behavior - Training transfer. Observing on-the-job performance of the trainees and sees whether they are applying what they’ve learned while at work.
Level 4: Results - How well stakeholder’s expectations were met.
Note that these four factors provide a holistic measurement which Kirkpatrick termed ROE. Jack Phillips later added actual ROI as the 5th level, and intangibles as the 6th level. There is much more to it, which will be addressed in my next article.
Lampel, J., Honig, B., & Drori, I. (2014). Organizational ingenuity: Concept, processes and strategies. Organization Studies, 35(4), 465–482. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840614525321
Malshe, A., & Sohi, R.S. (2009). Sales buy-in of marketing strategies: Exploration of its nuances, antecedents and contextual conditions. Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, 29(3), 207-225.
Rosso, B. D. (2014). Creativity and constraints: Exploring the role of constraints in the creative processes of research and development teams. Organization Studies, 35(4), 551–585. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840613517600
Voss, C., & Raz, T. (2016). Never split the difference: Negotiating as if your life depended on it. Walker, K., Schlosser, F., & Deephouse, D. L. (2014). Organizational ingenuity and the paradox of embedded agency: The case of the embryonic Ontario solar energy industry. Organization Studies, 35(4), 613–634. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840613517599