9 Ways To Get Others To Buy In On Change

Convincing others that change is essential is one of a leader's most challenging tasks. Follow these 9 best practices to get people's buy-in.
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.
September 30, 2013

"The best way to predict the future," said Peter Drucker, "is to create it." Many leaders don't have a problem envisioning an inspiring future for their company. They know the changes they need to make in order to realize their vision. They have a clear road map of the journey ahead.

The biggest speed bumps on the road to that future, however, are communicating the change and getting the buy-in from all those affected by the change.

People resist change for a myriad of reasons. A lot of of these reasons are emotional, such as anxiety about the unknown; fear that the change will result in a loss of control or status; stress that the change will result in a greater workload or new adaptations; worry about appearing inept or having to learn new things; and memories of previous change experiences that caused an upheaval.

In his book, The Heart of Change: Real Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations, John P. Kotter, a leading authority on change management, says, "People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking, than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings ... behavior change happens in highly successful situations, mostly by speaking to people's feelings. This is true even in organizations that are very focused on analysis and quantitative measurement, even among people who think of  themselves as smart in an M.B.A. sense."

In other words, change is more easily accepted when leaders try to reach people through both the head and the heart.

Guaranteeing The Buy-In

How can you use the vast body of research and resources available on change management to help you influence and inspire your employees to adopt your vision for change? How can you address their feelings and make them see the change is beneficial? These nine tips can help:

1. Communicate the change as a conversation. Talk to people about the change as you would speak to a family member or someone you care about. You're dealing with people's emotions, and corporate speak never connects us. So forget about the canned speeches and have a real dialogue with people. We can take inspiration from British philosopher Paul Grice who established four maxims for a healthy conversation. They apply particularly well when communicating information about a change initiative:

  • Quantity: Give just enough information—not too much and not too little. Don't inundate people with a tsunami of data in the form of charts, graphs, analysis or reports. Most people won't read them.
  • Quality: Be genuine. Don't bamboozle people with embellished information presented as facts. They'll soon see through it. As Grice put it, "If I need sugar ... I do not expect you to hand me salt."
  • Relation: Be relevant. Connect what you say about the change to what is uppermost on everyone's mind; i.e., how will the change affect them personally and what will be expected of them?
  • Manner: Communicate what you say in the clearest, briefest and most logical manner to help people understand. Don't be vague, ambiguous or wordy, or you'll lose them.

2. Address the emotions in the room. Do your homework to understand how each person might feel about the change. You can increase your awareness of people's reactions to change by looking at the change curve, originally developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her work on the grieving process. It mirrors the emotions that take place when people have to cope with change. The stages in the change curve include shock and denial, anger and depression, acceptance and integration (or commitment). 

The emotions in each stage are triggered by a lack of enough information, suspicion, fear, frustrations, skepticism, shifting priorities, different reporting relationships, new expectations, a need for structure and certainty, feeling threatened, being comfortable with the status quo and not wanting change. Think about how you can address these emotions and concerns. Let people know you understand their world and how they feel. This will open up an emotional conduit between you and them. The Teflon-type leader who communicates change through facts and numbers has a more difficult time being heard and believed than the leader who addresses people's emotions. It's only by doing this that you can take people by the hand to lead them to the next stage. That's the stage of acceptance and commitment, which involves hope and trust, and being open to the exciting, new opportunities.  

3. Repeat, repeat, repeat. There's a disconnect between what leaders think is frequent communication and how employees perceive it. The 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that because of the current climate of skepticism in organizations, the majority of people need to hear information three to five times before they believe the message. This is particularly important when you're trying to convince people of the merits of the change. As people grapple with emotions, they're less receptive to believing what they hear. Consistency and repetition are key.

4. Vary the medium of communication. Kotter recommends using many different forums to communicate the vision and the new changes: large group meetings, memos, posters and informal one-on-one talks. Today, we can also make use of targeted, strategically spaced emails, as well as the various social media tools to reach people and their families. You can add team briefings, focus groups and demonstrations, help desk, road shows, videos, podcasts, webinars and intranet news. When people hear the same message from multiple directions, it has a better chance of being heard and remembered, on both an intellectual and emotional level.

5. Use metaphors, analogies, examples and stories. As Ron Crossland says in Voice Lessons: Applying Science to the Art of Leadership Communication, "Facts alone seldom persuade and rarely inspire." Enrich your message by using an apt metaphor or analogy that draws attention to your message. Use examples to show what the change means for people.

Your most powerful technique, however, will be the use of a good story. Stories influence us and are remembered better than bulleted lists or graphs. There are many stories a business owner can tell to lead change. For example, tell an uplifting story that brings the vision to life. Consider telling a "I know what you're thinking and feeling" story. This is a story that anticipates their objections and shows them how their objections and concerns aren't applicable in this case. Make sure any story you tell is authentic and told from the heart.

6. Develop an elevator pitch. Besides all the usual methods and forums for communicating the change, it's also useful to have a succinct elevator pitch to use in different circumstances. The University of Bath has a change management tool kit that includes a handy elevator pitch for just this purpose. Below is the template, which will guide you to prepare a one- or two-minute pitch that can express the following key points:

  • Here’s what our change initiative is about ...

  • It’s important to do because ...

  • Here’s what success will look like, especially for you ...

  • Here’s what we need from you ...

7. Walk the talk. If there's ever a time to walk the talk, this is it. Your credibility as the leader is crucial in getting people to buy in on the change. If your credibility is low, people won't believe your message. One of the most powerful ways to communicate a new direction is through your own behavior. When people see you live the change vision, a lot of doubts and cynicism start to evaporate. As the saying goes, words are cheap, but actions aren't. 

8. Hand out Price Pritchett booklets to everyone. Price Pritchett is a business advisor who specializes in mergers and organizational change. He spawned a popular series of small, concise booklets that are inspirational for people undergoing organizational change.

9. Know who to shut out. No matter what you do, there will always be some who will try to sabotage any change initiative. If they do it openly, you can deal with it. But often they do it covertly, behind closed doors. They try to foment discontent and cast doubt, and they actively work on recruiting others to their negative camp. What can you do about this? As Kotter's research shows in his video on "Dealing With Resistance To Change," you need to get these people out of the way and keep them out of your change communication activities. Do this no matter who they are in terms of their relationship to you or their position.

"If you let them inside the tent," Kotter says, "they will do so much damage that the change will be undermined." Prevent this person from contaminating others so you can successfully help everyone embrace the necessary changes for the growth and success of your company.  

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

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President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.