When Graham Weston came up with the idea to move Rackspace’s headquarters to the once-thriving but empty Windsor Park Mall in a struggling area of San Antonio, he was thrilled at the possibility of breathing life back into his hometown and attracting new talent. But to Weston’s surprise, his company’s employees didn’t jump at the idea—they rejected it immediately. An opportunity that Weston (who's worked with us here at Duarte, Inc.) had hoped his team would seriously weigh turned out to require many tense conversations just to get them to consider it.
To accomplish any big goal, leaders can’t just dictate a new strategy. They need to get a lot of people to say "yes" to it. And many leaders make the common mistake of assuming commitment will be easy to get—and keep. Here’s why it seldom works out that way, and what to do about it.
Some people may be skeptical of your vision. Others may actively disagree with it. They may feel anxious about the risks involved or pain they foresee following from it. Most disheartening of all, some of your team members may commit, then fall back into resistance once the path gets too long or hard for them to endure.
You can gain buy-in more easily and quickly by communicating in the right way. Leaders in these circumstances need to motivate others—to pull them toward their own perspectives at the same time that they warn about the costs of resisting. It’s a tricky balancing act that requires getting both right: Motivation is about emphasizing what people will gain by following your lead, while warning is about noting the risks of taking a different route.
Some situations may take more warning than motivating, or vice versa. Whatever the case, you first have to identify what kind of commitment you need from your supporters, then try to understand how they might see the risks and rewards of signing on—especially if you don’t see things the same way. It comes down to empathy. When it’s time to ask for people’s commitment, show them you understand how your idea may impact them, then explain how the rewards will be worth the risks, and what you’re doing to head off any potential mishaps.
For instance, the first time you ask someone to commit to something new—whether that’s a business opportunity, a new process, or even a new workspace—you have to get them to agree to change their mind-sets and behaviors. If they’re with you, you’ll hear things like, "Let’s do this," or at least, "It’s not a sure thing, but I’ll give it a shot." If they aren’t with you, you’re more likely to hear, "Nah, I’ll wait and see how things go."
Needless to say, sometimes employees don’t have the luxury to refuse a directive, which can lead to half-hearted or feigned commitment—which is just as bad as no commitment. That’s why both ends of the spectrum need your attention. If they’re genuinely committed, you want to reinforce the decision to commit by motivating them. Give them a reason to stay engaged and uplifted while allaying any lingering worries—no vague or generic promises!
Keep in mind that you’ll need your teams to sustain their energy and optimism for the long haul. If they’re resistant right up front, you can warn them about the perils of not coming on board and show how not changing might prove more perilous than the risks of the new approach.
Getting people to sign on to an idea is just the first step. Next, leaders have to convince people to keep forging ahead when they face opposition and would rather give up.
At that stage, you’re asking people to recommit. Even if they were committed before, there’s no guarantee that they’ll stay invested in the new approach. Why? The simple answer is that change is hard and takes a long time; with each step forward, there’s a new, potentially difficult decision that needs to be made—it’s seldom a one-time deal.
So at each point, leaders need to muster those same communication skills, repeating the process they started with. Check in on your followers, getting a sense of how they’re feeling. Address their concerns meaningfully, then use whatever combination of motivating and warning messages it takes to overcome the latest obstacles and push ahead.
During his quest to reclaim the Windsor Park Mall, Weston encouraged their employees to take an active role in rejuvenating the surrounding neighborhood. Rackspace set up a new foundation funded by contributions from both individual employees and the company. Weston later had the project’s architect take employees on tours of the mall so they could start to see what it would look like when it was finished. Being able to see the physical progress they were working toward helped keep everyone excited about the future and defuse fears about their new home.
Rackspace eventually moved into the mall, which is now used as a selling point for recruiting new employees and even customers. But the transformation wouldn’t have been possible without gaining the commitment and recommitment of the company’s employees, who collectively made it happen.
The next time you’re asking others to follow you on a grand vision, be clear what type of commitment you’re asking them to make. Anxiety before change is a normal, sane reaction. Be grateful for your skeptics because they may actually help to make your idea stronger. Then motivate them to join you, and warn them about the costs of standing still. That way you can see it through together.
Nancy Duarte is the CEO of Duarte, Inc., where Patti Sanchez is chief strategy officer. They are the coauthors of Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies, and Symbols. Follow them on Twitter at @nancyduarte and @pattisan.