The benefits of buy-in

During an interview I had several years ago, I was asked to describe my management style.  I started by saying that I learned it from my experiences in the Army.  Before I could continue, my interviewer made a funny face and asked if it involved yelling at people and demanding push-ups. Heh!  No surprisingly, it is not even close.

From the age of 17, when I joined the army, I noticed right away that it was much easier to follow and work-for some people (but not everyone).  Looking back, it seems funny because the army is really serious about following orders without question, and I did.  However, in the back of my mind, I still had my doubts about the quality and value of some of those orders.  In contrast, some of my leaders really stood out and I was proud to follow them (and I even enjoyed it sometimes).  Something about the great ones really stuck with me.

I think I could narrow it down to 2 specific characteristics about those people that made the difference:

  1. They lead by example
  2. They got buy-in.  In other words, they helped me see how doing a good job resulted in a beneficial outcome (eg, there was a good reason to do something, beyond “cuz I told you to”)

When I think of [lead by example], I think of names like: Sergeant Haun, Lieutenant Richardson, and Captain Bunn.  All of them worked much harder than me but didn’t have to.  They didn’t make others do their crap work.  They rolled up their sleeves and demonstrated that they were no better than anyone else and by doing so, demonstrated that they absolutely were better than everyone else.  There was not an ounce of laziness or whininess in those guys.

When I think of buy-in, I think back to one particular day during a training exercise, when my squad worked hard and smart to set up our equipment.  We rocked it out and were done in record time.  Sergeant Haun “rewarded” us by going around asking if we could help anyone else out.  I was a kid and I was mostly interested in outcomes that benefitted me, so I was a little miffed that my hard work resulted in more work for myself.  I copped a poor attitude.  Then Sergeant Haun did something rare.  He changed my point-of-view.  He did this by imparting the following wisdom on me:

  1. I (Tim) volunteered for the army
  2. This inherently means that I would like to care for others more than myself (American citizens and others in need)
  3. My colleagues have done the same and therefore, have the same intentions
  4. Helping my colleagues is doubly helping others, because my colleagues need help and they are trying to help others
  5. Therefore I accomplish my goals by completing my work and then looking for ways to help my teammates, thereby incrementally increasing our ability to accomplish our work (when they are done they help others too, etc.)
  6. The sooner it gets done, the sooner we all can relax
  7. If you care about your work and take pride in it, you are more likely to do it right the first time, which means it will be done quicker.  So be proud and be glad.

It was very idealistic, but it really made sense, once I saw the logic of it.  It had a profound effect on my attitude towards my work.  I also realized that this was why my sergeant was so driven and was always volunteering us to do extra work.  Since then, this logic has poured-over into my career and I have recognized this trait in some of my leaders and colleagues.

You could easily say that the theme of this story was all about my “attitude” but there was a deeper lesson here.  Sergeant Haun was not obliged to teach me anything.  He could have planted a boot in my hide and told me to move faster and quit whining (like he wanted to).  Instead, he took the time and effort to convince me of the merit of our actions.  He got buy-in from me.  After that, the work was easy and pleasant.  He didn’t have to babysit me or threaten me each time.  I got it.  I was on-board.  The effect was long-lasting. In fact, I still get it, decades later.

Periodically, I have had peers or subordinates who didn’t subscribe to this logic or this approach.  I’ve actually been criticized for “kissing those programmers butts” or “acting like a woose by begging them to do their jobs”.  I suppose I was expected to air-out my old army voice and shout at folks like a jerk. Like that will increase productivity. Don’t get me wrong.  If a member of my team is not doing their job, I will do what is necessary to get them back on track.  However, I don’t start by yelling.  I keep the rough-stuff at the end of my list of plays and save it for special occassions.

Let’s think this one through for just a moment.  These programmers’ primary function is to quietly sit and concentrate.  When someone is paid to use their hands, then you don’t want to interrupt their hands but for someone who is being paid to use their brains, you don’t make them more efficient by giving them distractions, like anger or fear.  What do you think an angry or scared person is going to concentrate on?  I doubt it will be work. 

My critics didn’t sway my opinion much.  In fact, they probably strengthened my resolve.  Because, when you looked closely at their results, you could see that they were in charge of people who hated them.  Their subordinates would not work hard to reward the poor behavior of their bosses.  All of their jobs were reduced to a paycheck and nothing more.  If their people could move-on, they did.  It was such a waste.

In contrast, my teams tend to stay put.  They see that I value their opinions and I prefer not to make decisions for them without their buy-in.  I don’t do this out of self-doubt.  I do it out of respect for my people and recognition of their intellects.  For example, on a few occasions, I’ve yielded to a few decisions that I disagreed-with because 1) it wasn’t that big of a deal and 2) it was a great opportunity for a learning moment (for them, but maybe for me, depending on the outcome).  I don’t always need to be right.  When my ego isn’t in the way, great things tend to happen.  Ultimately, my team feels more personally invested in the outcome.  They can see their part in each win that we get.

Getting buy-in isn’t always the simplest or most peaceful approach.  As you can imagine, some programmers can be a little uppity and need a little more mentoring than others.  Oddly, people who [ask a lot of questions] often tend to [have a lot of potential] as well (unless they are asking the same darn questions repeatedly. Guh!)  Spending time mentoring inquisitive people is usually a solid investment.  In turn, those people usually end up mentoring others eventually.  Like helping my cohorts in another platoon, their work gets done (quicker), then we pass it along until all the work is done and we can all relax sooner.  Instead of getting one win, we get two or three or dozens.

So, if you want better work from your team, get buy-in and keep your “motivational debt” low (  Help them see the benefit of the work.  Help them see how it helps each of them accomplish their goals (project completion, easier maintenance, personal growth, financial success, career advancement, and the satisfaction/pride of doing it right).  Sometimes they might even need to learn from their mistakes, so pick your battles (to lose) wisely.  You will find that it builds trust and respect (both directions).

About Tim Golisch

I'm a geek. I do geeky things.
This entry was posted in Methodology, Professionalism. Bookmark the permalink.

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