Communicating for buy-in

communicatingLast week during a leadership development program I was leading, one of the discussion topics revolved around how most people view change as loss. This is true, even if it is a very positive change. Think about that from your own experience in leading or being a part of change efforts. Have you ever heard people express concerns, like:

  • “We’re already doing our best, how can we do more?”
  • “What are those people thinking? They’re not on the front-line with students!”
  • “If I just ignore this, it will go away.”
  • “They don’t know what they’re doing.”
  • “What will happen to my job?”‘

According to John Kotter, author and world-renowned expert on leadership at the Harvard Business School, the goal of communicating a vision and mission for change efforts  is to “get as many people as possible acting to make the vision a reality.”

To do that, he argues that effective communication is more than just data transfer. Communicating for buy-in requires addressing people’s anxieties, accepting their anger, and appealing to their emotions on a gut level.

Here’s what Kotter suggests works to communicate change visions and strategies effectively:

  • Keep communication simple and heartfelt, not complex or technocratic
  • Do your homework before communicating, especially to understand what people are feeling
  • Speak to anxieties, confusion, anger, and distrust
  • Rid communication channels of junk so that important messages can go through
  • Use technologies to help people see the vision (intranet, video, ITV, etc.) and to enhance in-person communication

In addition, to communicate for buy-in, I recommend having real dialogue with those affected. Not just an information session, with a brief Q&A, but a real live discussion, where people can get their concerns, anxieties, and fears out on the table and work toward common goals. It may seem scary at first to engage in a dialogue like this, but it is the fastest route for building buy-in in any change effort.

What Kotter says doesn’t work is:

  • Undercommunicating (which happens all the time)
  • Speaking as though you are only transferring information
  • Accidentally fostering cynicism by not walking the talk

In your experience, what has worked best to communicate for buy-in and engage people in making the vision a reality?

Anita Rios


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