The Fallacy of Buy-In

Back in the 1960s, a researcher named Charles Hofling conducted an obedience study with a group of 22 nurses. A mystery doctor phoned in and asked them to see if they had the drug Astroten. When each nurse confirmed they had the drug, she could also see that the maximum dosage was 10 mg. The mystery doctor then urgently told them to administer 20 mg to a patient and let them know he would come in and sign the required authorization form later.

Now, if the nurses were to administer the drug, they would have been breaking several hospital policies: First they would have been administering twice the maximum dosage; secondly, they would have been accepting an order over the phone without any authorization.

21 out of 22 nurses complied with the mystery doctor’s instructions. (I know what you are thinking: “I’d never listen!”)
Well Hofling asked another group of nurses what they would do in this situation, and 99% said that they wouldn’t have complied.
This proved that not only do people obey orders that they know could be harmful (or even deadly!), they are also unaware of their flawed thinking.

The research on the dangers of obedience doesn’t stop there. Investigative research on airplane crashes and experiments on flight simulations both reveal that nearly 25% of the time, a co-pilot will stay silent when the pilot is clearly doing something that they know will crash the plane.

Think about your own life. How many times have you witnessed people in leadership make what you know to be serious mistakes, but you justify your silence with the belief that it isn’t your place, or they won’t listen to you?
One of the most common misconceptions of great leaders is that they get others to buy into their vision and their process. I’m proposing a very different culture and leadership style. In this culture, you are not the sole visionary. You don’t have all the answers. And not only will people feel safe questioning you, but they will feel that it is their responsibility to do so.

A New Kind of Respect

People talk a lot about the diminishing respect for authority, leaders, and coaches today. Maybe that’s true, but I am no longer convinced that blind obedience to a leader is synonymous with respect. It may be convenient. It may make us feel powerful. But that’s not respect.

Don’t get me wrong; that’s the kind of respect I wanted early on as a coach and teacher—and the kind of respect I still sometimes want as a parent! It’s more convenient when you are trying to get a 3-year-old to go to bed if they just do what you ask without questioning it. But hopefully, I can squash my desire for convenience before it squashes my children’s innate desire and instinct to question. As leaders, we need to change our approach, as well.

Walt Bettinger, the President and CEO of Charles Schwab, recognizes that the biggest challenge most leaders face is isolation. So, twice a month, he expects his employees to write what are called “brutally honest reports”, in which they answer the question, “What’s broken?”, and then tell him what he is missing as a leader.

This type of leadership requires not just a change to our style, but to our very thinking. Hal Gregersen, author of Questions Are the Answer (and an important professor at MIT), says, “Innovative executives deliberately put themselves into situations where they may be unexpectedly wrong, unusually uncomfortable, and uncharacteristically quiet. In so doing, they increase the chances that the right questions will surface to help them pick up on critical weaknesses.”

One common thread of nearly every system I share with coaches is they all require you to stop giving solutions and not only start asking questions yourself but create the space and the sense of safety for others to question you, as well.

My Problem with Trying to Get Buy-In

“Show me an organization in which employees take ownership, and I will show you one that beats its competitors.”
—David Abrashoff

When I moved back to America after coaching in Ireland for six years, the first mistake I made was one of the most common that leaders make when taking on a new team. It’s the same mistake I had made on every team prior: I came in thinking I knew best. I had a vision, a plan, and procedures mapped out, just like I thought all great leaders were supposed to.

What’s the alternative approach? Well, my initial thinking should have been, I don’t know the things I need to know. Instead of trying to get people to listen, I should have been getting people to talk.

Too often, leaders are only trying to get their people to “buy into” their own vision, values, and standards. If a leader chooses that approach, then it is really only the leader’s team, not the people’s team. You will struggle to get people to take ownership, because you haven’t let them own it.

So, to create a great culture, we have to rethink our approach. We need to ask a lot of questions. Then, we need to encourage others to ask questions.

We must first seek to understand before we can implement new ways of doing things As a leader, you will present some things to your team that they may not see the value in, and no matter how well we communicate “why” we do things, there will still always be questions.

No matter how well we plan to implement a change, most plans will face resistance or challenges, or they may be incomplete. The people within our team can help us identify these problems quickly, but if we don’t create a culture in which people can question us, we will continue to struggle, and eventually, we will fail to empower the people on our team.


• Hofling, C. K., Brotzman, E., Dalrymple, S., Graves, N. & Bierce, C. (1966). An experimental study of nurse-physician relations. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 143, 171-180.
• Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human relations, 18(1), 57-76.