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Change. I Don’t Buy It.

Among the many workplace phrases that I would like to make illegal is “getting buy-in”. It’s almost always paired “WIIFM”, which stands for “what’s in it for me?”, and is short-hand for the way we imagine a totally average employee who is also a diabolically shrewd and calculating villain assessing our carefully crafted change initiative or program implementation.

Maybe the workplace used to look more like an Indiana Jones movie than it does now, but my experience suggests that for every employee twirling their mustache and dreaming of extortion there are at least three who are wondering how long they have to sit in this Town Hall and listen to us talk about freezing and unfreezing and the 5 stages of grief when they have 4 pressing deadlines, 621 unread e-mails, and there aren’t even any cookies at this meeting Karen!

My position is this: “getting buy-in” deserves to be erased from our lexicon for two reasons:

  1. It rests on the assumption that highlighting incentives (actual or promised) will render concerns and questions moot, as though we’re dealing with a bunch of toddlers that can’t simultaneously acknowledge both benefits and down-sides, and
  2. The prominence given to “getting buy-in” suggests that once we’ve said the right words to the various stakeholders that we can check them off our list, because knowledge is half the battle, after all.

Now, those of you who are sophisticated org change experts would tell me that getting buy-in is only the first step, and that we then need to help stakeholders understand and adopt the behavior changes necessary to realize the broader change goal. And you’d be totally right. But in most organizations, this rarely happens. And without the support of a sophisticated org change expert, smaller projects and initiatives on tight timelines are lucky to have a decent comms plan, never mind this kind of thoughtful implementation. So, “getting buy-in” often ends up being the beginning and end of our change plan.

Here’s the thing: G.I. Joe lied to us. Knowledge is not half the battle. It just isn’t.

Before you get all “Yo Joe!” on me, you should know that this is actually an acknowledged thing. The G.I Joe Fallacy* refers to the error we make in assuming that once we know about something (such as the prevalence of a cognitive bias) that our behavior will change in alignment with that knowledge (e.g. we won’t succumb to that cognitive bias).

This is not how our brains work.

Let’s make it personal for a second. You, like me and most of our friends and family members, know that not smoking, exercising, and eating a healthy diet provide us with a vast richness of benefits. It makes us less likely to get sick, lengthens our lives, keeps our weight in check, makes us look better and younger, and can even improve our mental health. The WIIFM portion of this slide deck would be criminally long!

And yet, less than 3% of Americans follow basic healthy lifestyle guidelines. Less than 3%! What is wrong with these evil, mustache-twirling toddlers?? Don’t they get what’s in it for them?

Of course they do. It’s just that knowing is not enough. Change is hard. A plan helps, especially one that connects the dots between how we need to change our behavior day-to-day, how we can alter our environment to support our success, the obstacles we can expect to encounter, and some strategies to avoid or overcome them. But it’s still hard.

We’ve come a long way since the days of G.I. Joe. Advances in our understanding of habits, behavioural economics, and psychology have helped us adopt a more nuanced view of change, and accept that it’s much more complex than we once assumed. Which is why “getting buy in” needs to be exiled to the garbage heap of workplace jargon. Thanks for signing my petition.

*Someone else on the interwebs wrote about the G.I. Joe Fallacy this week, and I can’t remember who. I’ve gone through all my saved links and newsletters trying to track down the post, and I can’t find it again. Apologies for not linking to you, mystery writer, and thank you for the much-needed blog inspiration.

Recommended Reading:

How to maintain a predominantly white workplaceLenience Flowers Brissett, Quartz

Wow. Pretty sure this post could be the basis for an entire D&I 101 course. You’ll want to read it, and then set some time aside to explore the many links it contains.

Step 3: Despite research from McKinsey, Deloitte, and Kapor Center for Social Impact that cites the benefits of a diverse workforce and board—including increased profitability, diversity of thought, a more comprehensive understanding of customers, and reduced groupthink—actively resist these efforts.

Push back against formal diversity goals in hiring processes for employees, executives, and board members. Defend the majority white executive team with allusions to meritocracy, and double down on continuing the pattern of white men comprising an overwhelming majority of the highest level executives.

For good measure, let board members serve unlimited terms. Rely on current board members to refer future board members (and c-suite executives) from their own homogeneous networks.”

Employee Burnout – Part 1: The 5 Main Causes – Ben Wigert and Sangeeta Agrawal, Gallup

First part in a three part series on burn out, and well worth a read. Thanks to Stowe Boyd’s exceptional Work Futures newsletter for bringing it to my attention.

“Although burnout has become “just part of the job” for many workers, the hard organizational cost of burnout is substantial: Burned-out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job. And even if they stay, they typically have 13% lower confidence in their performance and are half as likely to discuss how to approach performance goals with their manager.

Even scarier, burned-out employees are 23% more likely to visit the emergency room.

The main factors that cause employee burnout have less to do with expectations for hard work and high performance — and more to do with how someone is managed.

5 Factors Leaders Should Focus on to Reduce Burnout:

  1. Unfair treatment at work
  2. Unmanageable workload
  3. Lack of role clarity
  4. Lack of communication and support from manager
  5. Unreasonable time pressure”

What 30 years of Stanford research tells us about company culture – Melody Stone, Stride blog

Good interview with Bob Sutton on culture.

“What are some key things managers can do to promote healthy open workplaces?

The first thing is don’t be a hypocrite. You can’t tell people not to be jerks and treat them like jerks. Behaviors have to match what you espouse. We’ll count how many questions leaders ask and how many statements they make. If they say they lead from the back and then don’t—they’re in trouble.

Ray Kroc, the founder of the McDonald’s franchise system, really believed in cleanliness. When Kroc visited stores, before he’d go into the store, he’d go around and pick up all the trash in the parking lot.

Another area is with hire and firing. If you have norms that are supposedly sacred and people keep violating them and you put up with it, you are giving people permission to break the most sacred norms.”

Photo by David Carboni on Unsplash

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