How To Get Buy-In (And It's Not What You May Think)

One of the key attributes of successful executive team members and of effective executive teams is that they are able to effectively get buy-in for their proposals.  Whether it is the implementation of a new strategy through to a new pay deal for employees. 

However for some, all too often, efforts to get initiatives and proposals accepted are unsuccessful.  Why?  Well, the reason for their lack of success is typically because they haven’t adopted an approach called ‘fair process’. 

It's typically assumed that due to self-interest people are more strongly motivated by the outcome of an initiative rather than the process to achieve it. 

However, there is growing evidence from the business world and academia that this is not the case.  Instead, people are more interested in fair process - where they feel the process leading to an outcome is as important (if not more important) than the outcome itself.

So an outcome will be more readily accepted if it is perceived that the process of making and implementing the decision was fair.  And in turn the people who made the decision are then more likely to be perceived as neutral and trustworthy.

According to Van der Heyden and Limberg (1997) fairness is 'hardwired' into how our brains work. 

There are many examples where the failure to follow fair process has proved very costly, for example a strike at a VW plant in Mexico cost the firm an estimated $10 million a day just because fair process was not adopted. 

There are other examples where workers have rejected management proposals that were dictated to them, but then accepted a worse outcome just because they considered the process to get to this 'worse' outcome was fair (one example being the resolution of Air France's industrial disputes in the early/mid 90s).

INSEAD professors Kim and Maubourge (1998, 2003)) suggest three key principles for leaders wanting to create fair process in their organisation, in summary:

• Engage people in decision making by asking for their ideas andnull encouraging them to challenge proposals.  People need to feel confident that their voice is being heard.

• Explain the thinking behind the final decision.  People must feel you have been candid for them to trust your intentions, especially if their ideas have not been accepted.

• Set clear expectations and state the new rules of the game including performance standards.  Communicate what you believe the outcomes are likely to be.

Kim and Mauborgne argue that when people feel decision making is fair:

"...they display a high level of voluntary cooperation based on their attitudes of trust and commitment.  Conversely, when people feel that the processes are unfair, they refuse to cooperate by hoarding ideas and dragging their feet...."

Evidence shows that the adoption of fair process across a company also boosts team and organisational performance.

Bear in mind fair process doesn't mean "decision by consensus" and it doesn't mean that management stop making decisions, but instead they make better decisions that are accepted on merit.

So why hasn't fair process become a standard management practice? It's generally thought that this is because it is seen as a "soft" topic - fairness after all is not based on logic but perception.  Also, the "must make the numbers" mentality of many firms means leaders overlook a (fair) process that would help them achieve their aim.

So remember...the next time you try to get's not what you do, but the way you do it that counts.


Brockner J (2006) "Why it is so hard to be fair." Harvard Business Review, March 2006

Kim, W. C. and R. A. Mauborge (1998) "Procedural justice, strategic decision making and the knowledge economy." Strategic Management Journal, Vol 19

Kim, W. C. and R. A. Mauborge (2003),  "Fair process, managing in the knowledge economy", Harvard Business Review, January, 2003

L. Van der Heyden and T. Limberg (2007), "Why Fairness Matters"  ICR

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