Don’t Get Buy-In, It’s a Myth

The Myth of Buy-In

If you’re trying to get “buy-in,” you’ve already missed your chance to get genuine acceptance and engagement for whatever you’re trying to do.

That’s because when you’re in “buy-in” mode, you’re selling something. But you’ve only got one thing to sell, it can’t possibly fit everybody, the costs and features are completely inflexible, and the “buyers” don’t really have a choice.

It’s really more like getting people to pay taxes. No matter how great and real are the benefits our tax dollars bring us, no one gets excited about paying taxes.

Leadership isn’t a sales job. In fact as a leader, you’re the one who should be buying. Buying the best ideas from your people at all levels. Buying the best customer service ideas from the people who spend their days on the phones with customers. Buying the best production ideas from the people who spend their days with their hands on the product. When people see their own ideas “bought” and promoted, you can’t get any better acceptance and engagement than that.

Southwest Airlines didn’t get its reputation as an iconic customer service company by getting its customer service people to buy in to a set of rules and procedures sold to them from above. The Southwest Airlines leadership let their customer service people do whatever they think is best to satisfy the individual customer they’re dealing with at any given moment. The leadership has bought in to the experience, the wisdom, the inter-personal-relations savvy of the people who do the job every day.

As James Conklin wrote recently in the Globe and Mail Business section,

“In a complex and fast-moving organization, the change leader’s role is often not about coming up with all of the answers and then figuring out how to persuade staff to go along with the change. Instead, it’s about creating opportunities to have conversations about worthwhile improvements. When you do this, some surprising and unintended consequences may surface that only a front-line professional could anticipate.”

The Zen sword masters say, “If you have to draw your sword, you’ve already lost the battle.” This isn’t because you’re going to lose the sword fight. It’s because the victorious leader knows how to work with a situation in advance to make battle unnecessary.

If you need people to buy-in to something, you’ve already lost the battle.

Read the whole Globe and Mail article by James Conklin.


  1. Well, said, Craig. Many years ago when I was part of a corporate change management team and the US consultants used ‘buy-in’ as the new terminology my hackles rose alarmingly – it is SO about selling and so about denying empowerment. And astonishingly, it is continuing word in the lexicon of consultant-speak.

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