Participative leadership – making the move from “managing” to “leading”

Dear Joan:

My boss wants me to get “buy-in” from everyone before implementing even simple changes. I realize there are times everyone needs to be on the same page, but what he is expecting me to do seems like a “Venus,” or female, thing to do. I am a female Vice President and my boss is male and he doesn’t collaborate very often.  

Am I being too sensitive? Is there a guideline on collaboration that you can offer? 


Some of the best leaders I know--male and female-- work hard to keep their employees informed, involved and engaged. I fear that if you view getting buy-in as a “soft,”or female behavior, you are going to stunt your growth as a leader.

Participative leadership became a new way of managing around the same time women entered the workforce. To some it was seen as a more female behavior, than a traditional male behavior. However, over time, getting buy-in on changes has become a “best practice” for all leaders. 

If your manager has suggested that you get more buy-in, there is a good chance that you may be too directive. While this may feel like strong leadership to you, it may be creating dissention and dissatisfaction among your employees (and perhaps even your peers). I suggest that you go back to your manager for more feedback on how you are perceived. 

The question you are asking seems to be “To what degree should leaders get buy-in?” I believe that getting buy-in should not be an occasional activity, reserved for big initiatives. It’s a leadership style that can be used in all interactions. 

I also don’t want to confuse getting input with getting consensus. You don’t need consensus on every decision. If you tried to do that you’d never get anything done. On some issues you may get input but you will still have to make the decision. 

Here are some guidelines: 

Guideline #1 - Regular involvement creates buy-in more systemically than “buy-in activities.” 

Staff meetings:

For example, in your staff meetings, add a regular item: a forum to bring up problems and issues and ask the group to offer their ideas and input. Rather than arguing about their suggestions or giving reasons it won’t work, say, “That’s interesting. What do the rest of you think?” If you provoke an open-minded dialogue about the merits and problems with an idea, the group or individual will either talk themselves out of it or come up with a more workable solution.  

As new initiatives start to develop, bring the group into the dialogue early, about what the change could mean. Ask them to think out loud with you about the pros and cons. As they become more versed about the changes, it will be a more natural transition for them to prepare their staff. This approach is more systemic and involves them as it occurs, rather than after the decisions have all been made and now “buy in” must take place as a separate set of activities. 

One-on-one discussions:

During one-on-one discussions (which, ideally, should happen with each of your managers on a regular basis), ask each person to share what they are working on and ask how they will approach their projects. Even if they are fairly experienced, you will get insight into their working style. It helps you to understand how they approach their work and enables you to see where they need coaching. 

Guideline #2 - If you get people involved and they have an active role on little changes, they will be much more conditioned and willing to engage with you on implementing bigger changes. 

Guideline #3 - “Simple” changes are often the biggest changes to the people it affects.  

For example, today I received a call from a leader who thought some work reassignment was going to be “simple.” As it turned out, the group became very angry and defensive and the “simple” change proved to be a landmine. As she put it, “I really underestimated the cultural changes that needed to occur before this change was implemented.” 

Guideline #4 - The longer someone has done the same job, the more upfront involvement you will likely need to get them to change.  

When an employee has done a task one way for many years, he tends to identify with that task and changing it can feel like an assault on his competence. While a change may seem logical to outsiders, the person making the change will need to see the benefits and understand the “whys” before buy-in can occur. 

As a vice president you are undoubtedly focused on the bottom line. Involving and informing employees may seem like wasted time but I can tell you from personal experience, it usually saves time on the back end. I have always had more luck pulling than pushing.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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