Have you made it to the top of the ladder yet? Not the corporate career ladder, but the ladder of belief. It’s a ladder most companies fail to realise exists, despite it being an essential part of successful business performance. Why? Because it is focused on building employee buy-in to the company strategy.
Buy-in is about people accepting and taking ownership of strategy – getting on board, committing to it and knowing what they must do to deliver it. It is both rational and emotional – and there is a distinct and proven buy-in hierarchy, or ladder.
Buy-in starts with a basic rational understanding and knowledge about the strategy. No one can engage with something they don’t understand. Next comes commitment and caring – you need to be personally motivated about the strategy if you are going to deliver it. Following personal commitment comes the practicalities – you must consider the strategy doable and, more specifically, you need to know what you must do to deliver it effectively. The penultimate level in the hierarchy is ‘makes sense’ – the strategy must ‘fit’ for people intuitively in the broader context of the business; its mission, vision and values. At the top of the ladder is belief. Belief means that you have trust and confidence in the strategy and because you take it to be true and right, you use it to guide your actions.
Belief emerges as the single most important element of buy-in because belief is the trigger for action. If people believe in the strategy, they will find a way of making it happen.
Too often we find clients saddled with strategies that are stuck going up and down the first two rungs of the ladder of belief, because many leaders think they have achieved buy-in when the content of a strategy has been communicated. This is often done at annual meetings, yearly reviews, staff meetings etc. But our experience and research shows that leaders who communicate only the ‘what’ of strategy don’t build buy-in, so nothing happens.
Naturally, the leaders then get frustrated so they repeat the same story, but far from creating buy-in, this over-emphasis actually damages performance and confidence. Leaders need to focus on engaging people with the ‘why and how’ of strategy as well as the ‘what’. Only then can people move up the ladder, and achieve a gold standard of belief. But this will not happen of its own accord. To help people up the ladder of belief means rethinking how and who you engage in your strategy-making.
This is where HR can play a very vital and important role. HR ‘own’ the people territory and can use this expertise to help the business design a process for creating strategy buy-in for employees. If senior leaders communicate the why, then middle managers should be tasked with deciding the ‘how’ and involving the broader organisation in this process. Our research shows that middle managers can add significant value when they’re properly involved. HR should be doing everything it can to ensure engagement in strategy making is broad, deep and active.
It’s a sad fact that too many organisations have strategies that even the people who created them don’t really believe in or find exciting. Worse still is the fact that the further away from the strategy making table you are, the lower your buy-in and commitment to strategy is likely to be. HR can play a powerful role in helping leaders to close that perceptual gulf.
A very first step would be using statements in the ladder of belief to temperature check employee buy-in. If you want to know how engaged people in the organisation really are with the strategy, ask them. This shouldn’t be a one off exercise – it should be done periodically and at key stages or milestones in strategic delivery. It can also be done at other key moments, such as when new employees join the organisation and each time the strategy evolves over time.
As a senior HR professional it’s important that you understand and explain the rungs of the ladder of belief to those creating and implementing the company strategy. It’s proven that employee engagement makes a significant difference to the companies bottom line and as the economy turns toward growth for the first time in several years, we expect to see a shift towards more exciting, and sometimes riskier strategies. In these very different circumstances, keeping hold of the best employees will require their belief in the company direction. If you can do anything to affect strategy in a meaningful and enduring way, it will be by showing your leader and middle managers how to help people climb the ladder.
Why not start by asking yourself where you are on the ladder?
Olivia Buckle-Wright, Director, Cognosis Consulting