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Winning the Buy-in Battle: Getting Employees On Board for Change

Change has always been a factor in the adapt-or-fade business world. And beyond purposeful change to remain competitive, companies reckon with unexpected developments in many areas, including the economy, supply chain, and regulatory control. And the pandemic made everyone acutely aware that things can take a major turn in the blink of an eye.

But knowing that change is inevitable doesn’t make it easier to accept.

One of the toughest challenges for business leaders is aligning their teams to embrace planned changes or rallying them to withstand unanticipated disruptions. That’s because most people resist change; it’s human nature to remain comfortable with the status quo.

And we’ve all become more change-weary after the tumultuous years we’ve just experienced. A Gartner survey shows that while 74 percent of employees said they’d support change in their organizations in 2016, only 38 percent agree today.

Why Employees Resist Change

In an article for Gallup, Sherzod Odilov and Chris Musser advise leaders to always account for resistance to change. They list some common causes why employees dig in their heels:

  • Some may feel psychological ownership of the object of change, especially if it has existed for a long time.
  • Some may resist the content of the change if they have strong differing opinions about what is being introduced.
  • Some may resist the way the change is being introduced (e.g., communications surrounding the change).

The authors also point out that certain employees’ personalities and life experiences predispose them to oppose change more than others. Organizational experts and authors James Belasco and Ralph Stayer cover this topic in Flight of the Buffalo and make the following observation:

“Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up.”

Given the various reasons driving people’s aversion to transition, Odilov and Musser tell leaders that it’s unrealistic to think they won’t encounter it. But regardless of employees’ resistance to change, it will and should happen in businesses.

The challenge for leaders is creating a workplace culture that effectively channels change and overcomes opposition.

Creating A Culture of Change

There is no lack of advice for leaders trying to build buy-in for organizational change. Most sources recommend that CEOs personally communicate and demonstrate their excitement about new directions to their staff.

But author and Pragmadik CEO Andrea Belk Olson believes leaders must do much more to engineer buy-in successfully. In an article for Harvard Business Review, she points to research showing that simply holding a pep rally can backfire:

“This narrow approach often results in a wave of employee cynicism, doubt, distrust, and negativity, which can relegate change efforts to a slow and painful death.

Olson explains that leaders should take a more preemptive approach. She advocates for creating a culture of accepting change long before they plan to introduce anything new. Her formula for achieving this goal requires leaders to address six areas:

  1. Legitimacy
  2. Ownership
  3. Relevance
  4. Attainability
  5. Authenticity
  6. Impartiality


Employees often balk at a change because it’s presented as a top-down mandate. A much more effective way to build support is by proactively enlisting key personnel respected by their rank-and-file peers. These trusted voices can help legitimize transitions and build confidence across the organization.


Some companies hold “town hall” meetings after a change has been announced to give people a chance to voice their opinions. Employees may speak up at these gatherings but are unlikely to believe senior management will take their input seriously.

Leaders who invite their people to help shape a change have a better shot at building buy-in. Olsen recommends holding a series of interactive discussions where departments can determine potential roadblocks and define how the change will impact their area of responsibility. She explains: “This provides them a way to tailor and adapt execution to fit their own unique circumstances, conditions, and restraints.”


When employees understand the “why” behind a change, they are far more likely to accept and even champion it. But leaders often don’t provide reasons behind operational changes or explain how they contribute to big-picture goals that would benefit everyone in the organization.

Olsen writes: “By coupling components of known needs to today’s change, it reframes the change as crucial and integral, rather than just extra work added to the pile. Further, it reinforces that leadership recognizes chronic front-line challenges, and doesn’t simply brush them under the rug.”


Extensive overhauls can overwhelm a workforce. So leaders planning a major transition should consider minimizing the impact by breaking it into what Olsen calls a series of micro-changes. This brick-by-brick method gives employees time to digest and learn to manage each part of a new development. Leaders can build consensus for the overarching change by orchestrating these short-term wins.


Some companies go all in on branding a change to build enthusiasm in the ranks. But posters and t-shirts feel inauthentic without actions demonstrating the change’s benefits. Olsen provides this example:

“If a change focus is towards ‘giving more back to our community,’ translate it into direct behaviors, from paid volunteer hours to employee donation matching. By providing behavioral illustrations of what the change represents, it transforms from something stated to something acted upon.”


Sweeping changes often generate internal warfare as departments defend their perspectives, regardless of how their concerns affect other areas of the business. And leaders making decisions in this heated environment can appear to be playing favorites. If they anticipate this kind of turmoil, CEOs should consider bringing in a neutral change facilitator who can channel behaviors in the workplace culture.

Free of preconceived notions or biases, these third-party consultants can help neutralize infighting and eliminate the perception of favoritism. And taking this step demonstrates leadership’s commitment to a smooth and fair process and making positive change part of the company culture.

Building Buy-in

Creating a culture that helps workers embrace change is the best defense against a “we’ve always done it that way” attitude. In addition to the steps outlined above, leaders can support their staff by coaching specific behaviors that make people more willing to grow and capable of adapting. For example, they can encourage employees to:

  • Be relentless about improvement
  • Look ahead and anticipate issues
  • Have a team-first attitude
  • Be innovative
  • Be flexible

Adopting these behaviors helps employees understand that staying “in neutral” limits their contributions and prevents the company from rising to the next level. Practicing them also fosters the resilience employees will need when the organization undergoes unexpected changes.

Perhaps the most crucial element that must permeate any change process is trust. Employees who trust their leaders are much more likely to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them during a transition. CultureWise Founder and CEO David J. Friedman says leading by example is one of the best ways to establish trust in an organization. As he points out in his book, Culture by Design:

“Our people are observing us every minute of every day, consciously and unconsciously, and they’re taking their cue from us about what really matters. We can talk all day long, but how we respond to situations will have more impact than anything we say.”

And cultivating trust is foundational to getting people on board with new ideas. As author Steven M.R. Covey said: “Trust is the highest form of motivation. It brings out the very best in people.”


Schedule a call with a CultureWise specialist to learn more about creating and sustaining a culture that embraces change and growth. And boost your culture knowledge with a complimentary subscription to Culture Matters, featuring weekly topical articles and offers, as well as insightful videos, podcasts, and webinar opportunities.