Douglas Reeves on the “Buy-In” Myth

Douglas Reeves on the “Buy-In” Myth


From the Marshall Memo #431

In this thoughtful American School Board Journal article, author/consultant Douglas 

Reeves challenges the widespread notion that “buy-in” from all stakeholders is a prerequisite 

for important change. “What community members need are leaders and policymakers who will listen and also challenge us,” says Reeves. “Don’t ask us to buy into your ideas for change; challenge us to envision a future that is better than today. Challenge us to consider improvements in our educational systems that will happen only if we replace the skepticism associated with the buy-in imperative with the hope and optimism associated with new ideas, practices, and policies.” Reeves suggests four ways to get past the buy-in fallacy:

Behavior precedes belief. The conventional wisdom is that we must change people’s attitudes before they will change their behavior. A good deal of professional development is based on this model – hence the myriad motivational speakers touring the country. But cognitive psychology has a better way to help people quit smoking, lose weight, become less authoritarian as leaders, and lecture less in the classroom. “Changes of this magnitude happen not because of belief, but despite belief,” says Reeves. “…It is not rhetoric that persuades us, but evidence at a personal level. The addict, lecturer, or autocrat reinforces new behavior only after observing evidence that the new behavior is effective.” That means going cold turkey on cigarettes, getting on a treadmill, trying participatory leadership practices, and experimenting with interactive models in the classroom – in other words, acting our way into a new way of believing rather than believing our way into a new way of acting. 

Buy-in is an illusion. “If you think you have buy-in, then chances are very high that you are not asking for a very significant change,” says Reeves. “Significant changes in professional practices represent painful losses and an acknowledgement that past practices were not as effective as we thought.” People may be acquiescing to a new enthusiasm from administrators in the cynical (or realistic) belief that this too shall pass.

Evidence beats rhetoric. Policymakers and school leaders need to push back against popular practices that harm students, says Reeves: “The most toxic policies – mandatory retention, corporal punishment, and mathematically indefensible grading policies – are enshrined in statutes and board policies not because leaders are venal but because our culture elevates the opinions of the loud and many over the evidence of the quiet and few.” He cites encouraging evidence of policies that have changed by the weight of the evidence, not because there was a democratic vote: no smoking in faculty lounges, bans on corporal punishment in most states, and a gradual move away from demonstrably ineffective classroom practices. 

“I used to think… But now I think…” Reeves loves the challenge that Harvard professor Richard Elmore gives scholars (his book with this title lists a number of views that have changed over the years). Reeves concludes: “Only when leaders can say, ‘The evidence has persuaded me to change my previous practices and beliefs,’ can they expect teachers also to change, improve, and, most importantly, challenge our students to do the same.”

“Envision a Better Future” by Douglas Reeves in American School Board Journal, May 2012 (Vol. 199, #5, p. 42, 44), no e-link available; Reeves is at dreeves@leadandlearn.com


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