Meaningful Engagement vs. Buy-In: What’s the Difference and Why Should I Care?

Group Of Designers Having Meeting Around Table In Office

Many years ago, I came across a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal. It read, “Change imposed is change opposed.” A consulting firm that was promoting its change management practice had placed the ad. It held my attention for a long time. I had been familiar for years with the adage “People support what they help to create.” I’d quoted it many times and thought it conveyed what people leading change needed to know about the essence of change management.

However, this new statement conveyed the idea more directly - even bluntly. It caused me to think about how most organizations go about managing change and it caused me to wonder the following all the more.

If imposing change provokes opposition and people do in fact support what they help to create, then why do we continue to manage change in ways that do not truly engage people and do not foster conditions where “meaningful engagement” can occur commonly? Why do we continue to settle for “buy-in” when we want and need so much more?

Terms of Engagement

Engagement in change is not a simple subject and tackling it in a single post is not possible. In fact, the subject of engagement will require three posts. In this first post, we’ll look at the reasons why engagement is neglected in favor of buy-in. In the second post, we’ll look at the dynamics of engagement and how it produces superior results. In the third post, we'll look at how to create meaningful engagement and deepen commitment to change.

However, before going one sentence further, let’s get clear about terminology. In the questions posed above “buy-in” and “meaningful engagement” are used in sharp contrast to each other. Let’s unpack each for a moment.

We’re all very familiar with the term “buy-in.” I don’t know when the term first appeared as a noun in the business vocabulary, but it was long ago. Over the past two decades, change management’s primary purpose has become synonymous with creating buy-in. Look up buy-in. Buy-in is defined in several sources as agreeing with an idea or accepting an idea as worthwhile. One source even uses the word “acquiescence” to define it.

Really? Agree with or accept something as worthwhile? Acquiesce? That’s the purpose of change management? In my opinion, that falls way short of the bar. That’s like aiming for compliance when what you want and could have is commitment. The connotation of buy-in is too passive for me. I believe we’re aiming for something much higher.

The term “meaningful engagement” may be less familiar. I don’t hear it mentioned as the purpose of change management, but I believe it should be. Meaningful engagement is about inviting people in organizations to co-create the change. To elaborate, it’s about describing the end in mind, inviting people to participate actively in the change process, providing them the relevant knowledge, skill, and material support needed, and letting them actually shape the change to its ultimate, successful operational end. Any authentic involvement that allows people to make a consequential contribution to the process and the outcome of the change and deepens their understanding and commitment fits the concept of meaningful engagement.

With terms defined, let’s return to the questions. Why do we not truly engage people and foster conditions where meaningful engagement can occur commonly? Why do we continue to settle for buy-in when we want and need so much more?

The questions as stated pose a problem. Without empirical data, there is no way to answer directly – no way to draw a fact-based conclusion. However, it is possible to answer from a different perspective. Just as physicists can’t directly observe sub-atomic particles, they can infer a lot about them through observations and other experiences. We can use the same approach.

Sorting It Out

Let’s ask the question differently. What is it about meaningful engagement that causes leaders, managers, and change practitioners to be wary of it or completely unwilling to use it?

From this perspective, the answer seems to lie in what engagement requires that buy-in doesn’t or at least doesn’t to the same degree. Five requirements come to mind.

  1. Engagement requires relinquishing absolute control

This may well be the requirement that presents the biggest impediment. Many leaders and managers I know and have known over the years have a strong orientation to control. They believe that exercising near total control is how they became successful. Engagement as I’ve described it is counterintuitive to their notion of what constitutes strong, effective leadership. What’s more, a lot of change management consultants are unwilling to confront the leader or manager about the matter.

Inviting members of the organization to co-create change in fact requires leaders to give organization members the authority and latitude required to do what they have been asked to do. We’ve all heard adages about the fox in the hen house and inmates running the jail. That’s not what this is about. Meaningful engagement is not leadership abdication. It’s leading in a different way. It means building member capability to participate effectively and setting parameters for their participation.

Meaningful engagement requires that leaders set clear objectives, establish appropriate scope and boundaries, plainly delineate the responsibility and authority of the team, and describe the deliverables in clear terms. Within this framework and along with appropriate support, teams have the latitude to produce the outcome that makes a consequential contribution to the change.

There are additional points to be made about the tension between maintaining and relinquishing control. Some I’ll make below. Others I’ll make in follow-on posts.

  1. Engagement requires patience

In a world where organizational performance is measured one quarter at a time, patience is in short supply. An illustrative story makes the point.

When I do an organization design project, I use multiple analysis teams to work concurrently early in the project to collect and analyze data from several important perspectives before design work begins. Team members learn a ton, become deeply engaged, and produce valuable information that becomes the basis for making a host of important decisions. These task teams are always carefully chartered and a timeline and expectations about members’ time commitments are always explicitly stated.

In a project some years ago, the client was very excited about the prospect of having people in her organization work on these teams, develop this great data, and channel their learning into the process. She got the value of engagement and investment without question. But then we got to the timeline and time commitments… and the client wavered. In that moment, the value of engagement crashed headlong into leader impatience and the perceived need for speed.

To be clear, these were people who hadn’t done this kind of work before. They needed to get organized as a team and be trained in what to do and how to do it. Then they needed to actually execute the work they’d planned, analyze the data they’d gathered, and summarize the results. Very simply, Rome couldn’t be built in a day. Ultimately, the client understood what was involved and agreed to give the teams the necessary time.

Engagement requires learning and learning requires time. In a setting where people haven’t previously been asked to participate genuinely and meaningfully, they possess little in the way of a skill set for doing so. We’ll come to that next. However, beyond skill development, proficiency (read speed) at anything comes with practice and experience. Accumulating practice and experience requires time and allowing time requires patience.

Make no mistake. Being patient can be painful. We’ve all watched in anxious discomfort as something we could have done quickly stretches out over what seems like eternity. However, when ability becomes proficiency the payoff is huge and it keeps paying dividends.

  1. Engagement requires investment in people

When people in organizations haven’t previously been asked to participate genuinely, they don’t possess the skills for doing so. Engagement requires building capability that is consistent with what people are being asked to do.

One skill set that is fundamental to effective organization functioning regardless of the choice to engage people or not is how to participate effectively in teams. Sounds simple but think about how many dreadful team meetings you’ve sat through led by people who should know better. Other skills are related to what a team is being asked to do, e.g. benchmarking, process analysis, data collection and analysis about any variety of subjects, etc. If you want to engage people in co-creating change, then you will have to invest in building their ability to do so. And like the point above, once you build capability it continues to pay dividends. People help others to learn what they’ve learned and sustainability develops.

  1. Engagement requires rethinking power as a zero-sum game

The fourth requirement that differentiates between engagement and buy-in is reframing power. If you frame power as a zero-sum game – that is, if someone else has some then you have less – then you will be averse to using engagement as a change strategy. However, if you understand that helping people to become powerful makes you all the more powerful, then meaningful engagement becomes a real possibility.

  1. Engagement requires belief in people

It is my opinion that one of the key differences between choosing engagement and settling for buy-in is what leaders and managers believe about people. My experience with many leaders over many years has evolved into a kind of grounded theory that suggests two orientations to people not dissimilar to Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y.

If a leader, manager, or change practitioner believes that:

  • People are not capable of making a contribution greater than what is defined in their job description
  • People are unable to understand the complexities of how the business functions
  • People are not interested in the organization’s success beyond their own self interest, etc.,

then meaningful engagement is not a viable change management strategy. Leaders and managers will be unwilling to relinquish the control, exercise the patience, make the investment, and share the power that engagement requires. Getting people to agree with and accept the decision and direction for change – buy-in – will be sufficient.

If, on the other hand, leaders and managers believe that:

  • People are capable of making a far greater contribution than they are currently being asked to make
  • Their business literacy about how the organization functions and other important business skills can in fact be raised significantly and
  • There is a vast opportunity to integrate the interests of the individual with the interests of the organization, etc.

then engaging people to co-create change emerges as a viable change management strategy.

Where Do We Go From Here?

It seems defensible to conclude by inference that buy-in typically triumphs as the objective of change management because it doesn’t require the same level of leader or manager commitment that meaningful engagement does. Aiming for buy-in just doesn’t demand as much time and effort. In the end, unfortunately, expedience wins.

But there is another very important side of the story. My experience has been that buy-in doesn’t produce nearly as much as meaningful engagement and co-creation of change can -  in the same manner that compliance doesn’t produce what commitment can. Done right, meaningful engagement in organizational change has the potential to:

  • Strengthen understanding of the need for and direction of change
  • Deepen commitment to the change process and objective
  • Build business literacy and many other important business skills
  • Accelerate change, and
  • Propel it beyond the envisioned outcome.

In the second post, we’ll look at the dynamics of engagement, review a case on engagement, and consider its potential for producing superior results. In the final post in this series, we’ll look at how to create meaningful engagement and deepen commitment to change.

In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about how you can take your change work to another level, please visit

One thought on “Meaningful Engagement vs. Buy-In: What’s the Difference and Why Should I Care?

  1. This is a well written and very thought-provoking post. Thank you. I don’t believe that the argument should be between obtaining buy-in or achieving engagement. I see buy-in as a necessary precursor to engagement. Therefore, the emphasis on buy-in is to establish stakeholder agreement so that latter relationships with the work and origination can evolve into a state of meaningful engagement; it would seem difficult to establish meaningful engagement with an employee that has not first bought-in and aligned their goals with the goals of the organization. Thank you for sharing.

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