Involuntary buy-in: the truth about change

     I know it’s received wisdom, even catechism that everyone in any organization can and should be bought in to change. I know this is essential to address resistance, often sounding like, “If they only knew better… we can help get them there by informing, educating…” I know within organizations we’re, “Not dealing with 5-year-olds,” so “Because I said so,” is bad form if not disrespectful.

     And still.

     Maybe (a word shouldering heavy burden and working hard) that’s true in some places. Maybe those resisters and others to be brought along and buy-in will do so because they can readily make the broad-minded “executive” choices most changes entail.1 Maybe. Not in most circumstances I’ve encountered. Non-executives may show interest in—even passion for—the greater organizational good as they understand it. But their interests are at best loosely tied to the broader good. This is important. Note that the argument that follows is framed for and applicable to non-executives.2

     At the risk of rebuke from the more enlightened, this essay puts forth the case for careful, appropriately-timed focus on “buy-in”… then acceptance that buy-in may have to be achieved non-voluntarily.

Telling people to get with the program instead of getting them to buy-in is change management heresy
By Jean Fouquet – Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, Public Domain,

Why buy-in won’t always happen voluntarily

     Each of the following numbered sections is not a “step” so much as an argument’s building block.

1. The rank and file are not executives; they don’t have executive capacity.

     That’s OK. It’s not judgment. It’s reality. An executive is not necessarily super-smart, though typically there is a floor threshold. But be it inclination or merely the job, one’s capacity to incorporate wider field of vision (i.e., more concerns) and deeper focal range (i.e., longer term) is required and more evident. The implication is the ability to perceive a change in the fullest relevant context.3

     Those that cannot, will be unable—maybe unwilling—to weigh competing needs, focusing on only those most germane to them.

2. Executives make choices, the most important of which involve change.

     Theory holds that an executive has many responsibilities. Ultimately, executing on those responsibilities boils down to one action: choose. Also referred to as, “decide,” executives make the consequential calls. Consequential calls, by their very nature turn on change:

  1. To change or not;
  2. If so, how/how not.

These impact… everyone.

3. No consequential choice is clean, clear, and definitive—or riskless.

     Generally speaking, the higher in the organization, the more ambiguous the circumstances. At the higher levels (where choices about change happen), rare is the situation of perfect clarity, immune to dispute—particularly by experts (true or self-proclaimed). Times and conditions like those of good decisions within ambiguity call for accuracy not precision. Experts (and resisters) seek precision and perfection—perfect being the enemy of good.4

4. Organizations are not debate societies.

     There is a usually limited time for debate and deliberation, followed by the point of decision. Then there is no more debate or being “bought-in.” It’s important to distinguish the post-decision “sell” to the mass of the organization (informing and helping people get comfortable with the choice) and relitigation of that choice by resisters. Presumably those in the first group “buy in” upon being informed because of trust, satisfaction, acceptance and resignation… This essay is about the hazards of post-decision “buy-in” by resisters.

     Here is a simple but effective organizing structure.

  1. During debate time, engage all experts and stakeholders to hear and be heard. It’s just good policy for extracting ideas and insights for the “solution” anyway. If the organization has not done this, so the resisters we’re talking about aren’t heard, that’s a different matter. (Shame on the organization.)
  2. Following debate, analysis and decision that embraces the inherent risks and ambiguities has to be made and, as a result set aside the concerns of the debate’s “losing” sides. Unless that happens, there is no decision… and progress cannot be made. When it happens, it happens with or without everyone advocating their view.
  3. Once the decision is made, debate is over. The organization must now dedicate itself to expanding on and executing the high-level strategy to achieve the objective based on the choice made. Informing and building knowledge/capability among stakeholders is the order of the day. Dissent may be noted, but that’s all.5

5. Getting buy-in HAS to happen prior to 4(b).

     If getting buy-in is left until and scheduled into 4(b) or—God forbid—4(c), the organization and its change management—if any—is ineffective. At this point, every resister or resisting stakeholder group creates either (a) a time sucking process of convincing them, or (b) a potentially infinite, recursive loop back through 4(a) to adjust the decision. Delay is the best-case scenario. Frustration is a given.

6. “Do it because I said so.”

     It is probable that the decision taken is not satisfactorily resolved and achieved in acceptable time if we fail at 5, so that mass buy-in is being attempted during 4(b) or 4(c). Besides, no reasonable, effective organization will or should accept (repeat) challenge to its chosen direction at this step. Not even for the sake of employee satisfaction or engagement or what have you. So ultimately all that engaging and buying-in—if there was failure at 4 and 5—ends with, “… because we said so” (Or some nicer variant.) That is, of course, anathema to change management training and practice, let alone to HR. But:

  1. It’s often reality;
  2. It’s neither wrong nor in bad taste (except to those not getting their way);
  3. It has to be done.

Organizations are not democracies; freedom is… strictured. As it should be.

     It “has to be done” because organizations with a purpose other than finding the truth (i.e., not judiciaries, academic departments, ideological or religious philosophical conclaves…) do not exist to find the one true path. They exist to make progress toward and possibly even achieve a desired objective. For businesses that is profitably serving customers. For governments (the public service) it should mean effectively serving citizens. For militaries, it should mean… oh, you get the point.

     Achieving a desired goal in commercial and government organizations is rarely—if ever—singular. That is, there are many ways to get to Memphis and no way is “right.” The organization merely chooses one way then effectively and efficiently progresses toward achievement. Nor is such an organization under any obligation to even make the pretense of satisfying all possible alternatives/issues—irrespective of the “rightness” of alternatives. It is arguable that precisely when an organization tries to follow two paths, it loses its way and becomes progressively more ineffective.

     In any organization of more than one person, let alone hundreds or thousands, there is NEVER accord on the best route to Memphis. Particularly so when so-called experts are involved.6 Experts tend to take pride in their expertise and/or “being the smartest in the room,” which leads to sessions of intractable clashes and prejudice rearrangement sufficient to seem like a team player.

     I’ve noticed that in some organizations—especially those with a culture of overriding harmony, (non-)expert resisters try to synthesize their strongly held beliefs to the organization’s choice by agreeing with conditions. (Pro tip: Beware conditional clauses in any declaration.) Strip away the condition, or prove it a stretch—irrelevant even—and you’re left with… resistance. If the circuit of conditional agreement and renewed debate is run enough times, either the intransigent resister is accommodated or the eventual, inevitable end point of, “… because we said so”7 is the terminus.


     The point is that the accepted wisdom of change management (i.e., get buy-in) is great if your job is to deal with this inevitably futile battle, or if:

  1. it happens earlier than most people think about needing it,
  2. your organization is the rare butterfly absent the propensities described,
  3. nobody in your organization is judged for effectively executing on a change, or
  4. ersatz peace and harmony are more important than progress and success.

     I have assumed most organizations do not line up to these conditions. (I may be wrong.)

     A more effective protocol variant to address incipient resistance may be:

  • Engage stakeholders, experts, etc. for relevant impact, information, etc. early
  • Analyse and choose.
  • Make the decision and act. (Be firm, aware the decision will displease some.)
  • Inform, educate, etc. (i.e., “change manage”)
  • Tell those the decision displeases to “suck it up and get over it.” (Respectfully, of course.)

If they don’t perhaps those valuable employees could be invited to “shine someplace else.”

The Bottom Line

     Accept this reality. It is how effective organizations work from an enterprise business8 to a government department (think, NASA in the moonshot days) to a successful Unicorn (pick your tech giant, say Apple) to a cult to the Catholic Church.

     There is no shame and it’s not a defeat to resort to, “because I said so.”

The essay is cross-posted to Change This!

     Institute X is a transformation leadership consultancy and transformation/change leader coaching firm. One of its online presences is The Change Playbook. Be sure to check out the abundance of practical and pragmatic guidance for all aspects of making change happen. Subscribe to be notified of new, fresh content.

  1. We must distinguish between “trivial” change, which is effectively isolated, and change that has many obvious and probably more hidden impacts that demand broader consideration of contingencies of non-trivial change. These are what this essay has in mind. ↩︎
  2. Which is not to say anything here is not equally applicable to executives. For simplicity and clarity, I exclude them for now. ↩︎
  3. Caveat: I know countless executives that do not qualify by this metric. But it is what we should aspire toward and expect. ↩︎
  4. Trust Voltaire. “… le mieux is l’ennemi du bien.” La Bégueule. ↩︎
  5. Of course, if potentially fatal obstacles are actually encountered, the organization should revisit and maybe debate the strategy/plan anew. That’s a judgment call weighed against constancy. ↩︎
  6. That’s not to exclude those non-experts with no fear of weighing in, informed or not, whose ranks have grown exponentially this century. ↩︎
  7. Or “… because that’s the choice we’ve made,” if that’s more palatable. ↩︎
  8. I wasn’t there, but I’m pretty sure the vaunted Jack Welch days at GE operated in this way. ↩︎



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