There’s a couple of scenarios that have come up a lot lately in my conversations with school leaders. The first is the leader is filled with enthusiasm for an idea or project that they feel really strongly is going to make a big difference to their school or organisation, but when they set it up, they notice that staff don’t seem motivated to put their energy into it. The leader then feels disheartened, frustrated or even angry. They can’t understand why staff don’t see the benefits that this new initiative will bring. Sometimes, the leader sees the lack of ‘buy-in’ as a verdict on themselfand it can colour the dynamics of relationships moving forwards.
The second scenario is the more experienced leader, who is noticing that in the current climate, things have changed. Staff who once seemed very motivated, willing to try new things and enthusiastic for change now seem less able to take things on and less willing to ‘buy in’. This also leads to frustration, and can sometimes knock the confidence of leaders who once felt they had people fully behind them.
What does it look like when staff ‘buy in’?
I’ve been pondering on ‘buy-in’ and what it looks like. Based on my years as a school leader, and now as a leadership coach, I think these are a few characteristics:
There’s a tangible sense of trust in the competence and integrity of leaders – people believe in them and their plans and are willing to support them.
Staff feel a sense of ownership in moving the organisation forwards – vision and values are shared, and they feel invested in school improvement.
Staff feel part of a team and are committed to that. They will do what they can to help other members of the team, and also feel ok about sharing their views if they disagree with something – in other words, they feel a sense of ‘psychological safety’ at work.
How does organisational culture nurture ‘buy in’?
That’s what I think ‘buy in’ looks like, but there are a lot of environmental factors at play which support and nurture it. The culture of the organisation creates a climate that will either engender ‘buy-in’ or not. An important element is honest dialogue at and between all levels of the organisation. This open communication keeps everyone abreast of the context staff are working in – how heavy everyone’s workload is, what new demands there are on everyone’s time, what’s affecting staff morale, what training needs are coming up etc. Importantly, what’s said is listened to. There’s a sense among staff that leaders are responsive to what they say. Culture is developed when things like this are repeated again and again. Author Susan David says ‘Organisational culture = behaviours repeated at scale’.
The trend of ‘quiet quitting’
In current times, in the education sector, as well as other sectors, workload issues seem to dominate all discussions. There also seems to have been a mindset shift after the pandemic (quite understandably, in my opinion) and people are questioning the place of work in their lives. The trend of ‘quiet quitting’ (doing the bare minimum required for your job and not going ‘above and beyond’) is an attempt to protect ourselves from the excessive demands of work and to reset the balance in our lives, having a kinder and more compassionate approach. Kindness is spoken about a lot these days, and we’re recognising more and more that we need to direct it inwardly to ourselves as well as outwardly, to others.
I think it’s refreshing that we’re moving on from an era where hard work was glorified, and it was a badge of honour to arrive at work first and leave last. But it also presents a challenge for leaders who want to get things done, and who are working in a context where accountability is high and budgets are tight.
Tips for improving ‘buy in’
Here are a few things that I think it’s worth considering if you are a leader who is struggling to get staff to ‘buy-in’ to initiatives or projects:
If you’re about to start a project, start with dialogue. Share the idea and the rationale you have for it. Get staff involved in testing out ideas and carrying out research. Talk about what are going to be the critical factors for success and make sure everyone is crystal clear on what they will have to do, and be sure that they have the skills to do it. Listen and respond to concerns that are raised.
If you’re introducing something new, consider workload and see if you can remove something from the list of things staff have to do, to make space for it. It stands to reason that we can’t just keep adding things without taking anything away.
If you’ve already started something, and it’s not working out as planned, don’t just plough on, and ignore the negative voices. Listen to what staff are saying, look at the evidence, take stock. It takes a lot of courage, but sometimes you need to drop things that aren’t working. Decide if you need to grit (stick with it and work through the issues) or quit.
Look at the bigger picture and evaluate your organisational culture. How open is the dialogue in your organisation? Do people feel able to express themselves? Try not to make assumptions about this – ask people.
Staff feeling motivated and invested in the future is essential to the success of an organisation, but we face new and difficult challenges at the moment. What worked in the past might not work any more, and it seems to me that the only way forward is together, talking to each other, trusting each other and being kind to ourselves and others.
If you’re struggling with some of these challenges, it’s good to talk to a leadership coach. I provide a safe, non-judgmental space where you can think out loud, bounce ideas around and gain a fresh perspective. My experience as a leader helps me empathise, but I carry it lightly, and see you as the expert on your school and your leadership journey. If you’d like to discuss coaching options, you can book a complimentary consultation using this link
If you’d like to read more about ‘psychological safety’ in the workplace, I recommend Amy Edmondson’s book ‘The Fearless Organisation’.
If you’re implementing a new initiative in a school, then the Education Endowment Fund (EEF)’s Implementation Guide is a great place to start – it goes into detail about effective implementation, that will encourage staff buy-in.