Why do some people almost always get their ideas shot down? [art of buy-in 1/3]

Falling off the face of the earth

Photo credit: another point in time

This is part 1 of a three part series on the Art of Buy-In. Part 2 is about my first experience in using these strategies to get a good idea implemented. Part 3 explains the specific tactics I used (and would use in the future) for getting buy-in plus further resources to check out.

Too often, the best ideas get shot down.

Tell me if this has ever happened to you: a group that you’re a part of has a thorny problem and no one seems to have come up with a workable solution.

You rack your brains and realize that there’s an answer that will fix the problem in an effective and responsible manner. You make a proposal, explain your idea and expect everyone to get on board. But for whatever reason, the group rejects your idea and either does nothing, or implements a worse solution.

I’ve definitely been there – and it sucks!

For smart, good-intentioned people, seeing one of their ideas get killed – often for no good reason – can be one of the most frustrating things in the world. But what can we do?

Well, here are some options:

  • blame the group for being dumb
  • dismiss the decision as a political game / popularity contest
  • avoid proposing ideas in the future
  • withdraw from the group because you are frustrated

But do you really want to do those things? If you care about growing as an individual and genuinely care about the group you are a part of and your ability to make a positive impact on these people’s lives – you must recognize that none of these options are ideal.

What you really want is the ability to get people to understand and implement your good ideas – helping everyone win.

I’m sure you’ve run into at least one person in your life, maybe a mentor, a coworker or fellow student or just a friend, who people seem to listen to and who actually is able to get the group to go along with their good ideas. How do they do it? Hint: it’s not because they’re smarter, better looking or more popular than you.

It’s because they’ve mastered the art of buy-in.

There happen to be a number of strategies that are highly effective in getting a group on board with new idea. The fact is, people are not robots – there are social and psychological dynamics to getting a group to agree to do something.

For instance – often times a person might personally agree with an idea but is worried that others disagree and don’t want to make waves. If everyone thinks this way, your idea never gets off the ground, even if everyone in the group agrees with it. How frustrating!

The good news is - you can learn these strategies.

I once dealt with a thorny issue where I got buy-in for an idea that had been previously proposed (and shot down) by a leader in the group by using what I’ve learned about getting buy-in. I’ll be writing up this story very soon.

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Leadership Lessons From Obama Addressing His Staff in 2008

“We’re going to have to be tougher, our game has to be tighter, I’m going to have to be a better candidate.”

I linked to this video a few years ago but it’s worth looking at again: Barack Speaks To HQ Staff & Volunteers

In this video, then-Senator Barack Obama is addressing his election staff & volunteer crew. He just won the Democratic Presidential Nomination and no longer battling other Democrats, he’s going to face down against John McCain and the GOP.

Regardless of your political affiliation or of your thoughts on the President’s performance in the past few years, its an objective fact that the Obama campaign was extremely well-executed. There were no major flaws, a lot of well run events, a lot of enthusiasm generated and a lot of grassroots efforts to actually get people to show up at the polls and vote.

Great campaigns typically have strong leaders and I think this video exemplifies how Obama lead. Look at how he focuses his attention on the staff’s efforts. How he appreciates the staff’s dedication, their commitment and paints the story of where they came from a few months ago, when they were down 30 points at the polls and he was fumbling at public events, to where they are now.

He shows his empathy for the volunteers – If you’re feeling burnt out, take some time off. I feel you. – but then brings them back to the task at hand – busting their asses and working essentially nonstop to win the overall election. He brings the focus to the wider world – a country with people who need help, help that (in their eyes) only the Obama team can bring. He reminds them of the legacy they have a chance to establish, that they can say they were a part of history.

He makes sure to touch on the various issues that he knows his staffers care about – the environment, Darfur (which I don’t think he did much about), education & the economy – which both shows his understanding of them and is a promise of what he will do if/when he gets elected.

I love when he says [my paraphrasing] – “You know, if we had lost in Iowa, it would have been ok. We would have a different Democratic nominee and would be putting our support behind them. But now that we are the nominated team, we have to win. We can’t lose.” It’s empathetic but tough.

A lot of great leadership lessons from this 13 min clip.

Defeat is Not Due to Losses but to the Destruction of the Soul [quote]

I am sure that if every leader who goes into battle will promise himself that he will come out either a conqueror or a corpse he is sure to win. There is no doubt of that. Defeat is not due to losses but to the destruction of the soul of the leaders.

The most vital quality a soldier can possess is SELF CONFIDENCE–utter, complete and bumptious. You can have doubts about your good looks, about your intelligence, about your self control but to win in war you must have NO doubts about your ability as a soldier.

- General George S. Patton (in a letter to his son)

The Unreasonable Man [quote]

The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him… The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself… All progress depends on the unreasonable man.

- George Bernard Shaw (Irish playwright and a co-founder of the London School of Economics)


This quote rings in my mind when I start to feel doubt about doing something that I strongly believe is right but might be considered irrational, foolish or unreasonable. Adaptation is a smart strategy much of the time and when you enter a new environment, is often the key to staying alive. But at some point you’ve got to put your foot down and force others to conform to your principles and vision.

Remember, progress is up to you!

Why Chewing People Out For Mistakes is a Bad Idea

I had a conversation recently with a few friends about chewing people out for mistakes that I wanted to share.

My med school friend had been observing a surgery where the surgeon had asked a nurse to get a specific item from the storage closet for use in the surgery. When the nurse got to the closet she found that they had ran out of this particular item, so she had to go all the way across the hospital to retrieve the item. She rushed back quickly, but it still took about 10 minutes – which is an eternity during surgery when the patient is already “open”, because it increases the risk of infection.

After the nurse returned, the surgeon went off on the nurse, berating her for failing to get the item back sooner and threatening the safety of this patient – even though it was not her fault that the storage closet was not properly stocked (that job laid with some third person who was not present). The surgeon chewed out the nurse so hard that she started crying and had to leave the room for almost the entirety of the surgery – meaning the operating team had make do with one less person available to help.

Some disagreement ensues

I felt that the story really underlined the reputation that surgeons have for being assholes and that his behavior was destructive and uncalled for. Surprisingly, both my trader friend and engineering manager disagreed. Their opinion was that the nurse (who was not a newbie by any measure) should have double checked all the supplies prior to the surgery and by getting chewed out, she’d learn her lesson and never let this happen again. Thus, even though the surgeon brought the nurse to tears and caused her to be ineffective for the rest of the surgery, he ultimately did the right thing in terms of maximizing patient care in the long term.

I strongly disagreed with their assessment and spent some time unsuccessfully trying to explain why.

I was so distressed by this conversation that it’s still on my mind now and I decided to write this post. So here are the 4 reasons I feel that yelling, belittling, insulting, threatening, and otherwise chewing someone out for a mistake is a really bad idea.

1. Stress inhibits initiative/creativity and encourages mindless obedience

The number one issue I have with this situation is that the nurse wasn’t even in charge of stocking the storage closet. That was someone else’s job. The surgeon wanted the nurse to take extra initiative and double check the closet – which is a great thing to encourage.

But you can’t berate some into taking initiative.

Sure, they might double check next time, but in general, when you are afraid of making mistakes, you are unlikely to take initiative to try new things. This nurse is less likely to go above and beyond the call of duty – not more. As a data point: it’s been shown that innovation efforts struggle after a firm announces restructuring efforts (a known stressor).

If you want your people to take initiative, putting them under a ton of stress for “screwing up” is not going to work.

2. When you lose control, you lose respect

When you chew someone out – it is often because you are pissed off and unleash your anger on anyone who is involved in the situation (and sometimes even unrelated people!) When you lose control of your emotions as the leader or most senior person on the team – you lose the respect of your team. You lose credibility and you lose influence.

How are you supposed to have the discipline to make the tough-but-important calls when you can’t even discipline your own emotion?

If you’re upset, it says much more about your character if you can stay calm and collected when discussing then incident – which will earn the respect of your team, making them more likely to follow your directions in the future.

3. You breed resentment which leads to turnover & passive aggressive behavior

Besides inhibiting creativity, chewing people out and making them feel bad leads to resentment, which leads to a host of negative consequences. When you resent someone, you tend to resist helping them and look for little ways to screw them. I’m sure you’ve all seen this sort of passive-agressive behavior play out in your home or work. It is toxic – you don’t want that in your workplace.

Additionally, resentment leads to people quitting. This nurse had been working at the hospital for many years – she was no dummy and had a wealth of valuable experience that can make a huge difference for patients in many ways. But if she left due to resentment or just plain burn out, that is a net negative for the hospital and for patient care.

4. You don’t get to the bottom of the problem

When you yell at someone for making a mistake and simply tell them to “never let this happen again” you are demonstrating a lack of intellectual curiosity. Most problems don’t have simple solutions – or else they would have been solved already. You need to get to the root cause of the problem.

Instead of chewing people out, a better approach might be to use the 5 Whys – a technique developed by the founder of Toyota. As the architect of the Toyota Production System describes it:

“the basis of Toyota’s scientific approach . . . by repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.”

Chewing people out assumes that the problem lies with their intelligence or motivation – and if that’s really the issue – you have a bigger problem on your hands.


I guess now I have to write a post about the right way to deal with mistakes or problems with people – that will come in time but in general, two good tips would be: ask a lot of questions and work hard to set clear and agreed upon expectations.

Chewing people out doesn’t work and it’s unprofessional. So don’t do it.

UPDATE – A med school friend of mine has written his thoughts on the surgeon’s behavior: Further Thoughts on Chewing People Out