Hi, I hope you’re doing well. Richard and I had an article published in the Kappan this month and Josh Starr took that opportunity to advertise the Coaching Letter; and I also had an article published in ASCD Express; and I think many of you took the suggestion in the last Coaching Letter to pass on the link to sign up. Thank you! As a result, there are many new readers of the Coaching Letter, so I would just like to say welcome. If you’re not new, you may wish to skip the next three paragraphs…

This newsletter is designed to provide leaders and coaches (whatever their actual job title) theory, research, ideas and suggestions that might be useful to them as they go about the work of leading improvement, improving equity, and building capacity and coherence in their organizations. To that end, I publish a Coaching Letter as often as I have time, which is generally a couple of times a month although sometimes there are periods of drought.

The Coaching Letter is free to you, but I would ask that you give credit to the Center when you use the Coaching Letter as a resource, and that you encourage others to sign up if you think they would benefit. I also advertise the work of the Center, but that’s because the Center and the Coaching Letter come from the same intellectual traditions (humanistic psychology, systems thinking, continuous improvement, research-based practice), and we strive to put into operation the big ideas that are examined here.

The Coaching Letter is called The Coaching Letter not because it’s about coaching, or how to coach. Rather, it started as an extension of the coaching I was doing at the time for a small number of Hartford principals. I would often get similar requests from two or more clients, or it would occur to me that they could all use the same resource. But a lot of what I write about is informed by my study and experience of coaching; one of the underlying assumptions of The Coaching Letter is that leaders would be better off if they had some knowledge and practice in coaching. And I wanted the Coaching Letters to be easy to find and refer to, so I just numbered them sequentially. And I wanted them to be easy to write, so no graphics or pictures or anything cute or clever.

To that end, here is a topic that comes up a lot in coaching, and in doing all this work on Acceleration, we get asked a lot about it: “buy-in”; specifically, “how do you get buy-in?” or more specifically, “how do you get teachers to buy in?” This is worth pulling apart, as I think our mental models around goals, buy-in, commitment and motivation are often a bit muddled.

So I’d like to just come out and say, I hate the question. The theory of the question seems to be: I have a really great idea that I want you to follow along with and so I am trying to figure out a ploy whereby you get just enough say in what we’re going to do that you feel like it is kinda sorta your idea. Or possibly, I have a really great idea that I want you to follow along with and so I am trying to figure out how to explain it so convincingly that you will slap your forehead and say “Of course! It’s brilliant! I wish I had thought of that.” The approach seems patronizing to me (I know best; you need to be convinced), unyielding (I’m not really interested in what you can contribute, I just need you to follow along) and, not least, based on a faulty assumption about motivation. Also, it puts the burden on the people that you want to change, as opposed to the leadership needed to do the work of educational improvement.

Yes, I understand that these are bold statements, but I have found that the mental model around buy-in is pretty entrenched, so I feel the need to take a strong stance. I’m also curious as to how this plays out in other fields. What does buy-in look like if you are a lawyer, a nurse, an accountant, or a soldier?

So here are some thoughts about what you should do, but first a couple of thoughts about what you shouldn’t worry about.

First, don’t worry about people setting their own goals. Yes, there is some evidence that people are more invested in goals they set themselves, but it’s a marginal return on investment. It’s like worrying what kind of socks someone is wearing in a blizzard, when really what they need is boots, a down coat, a hat and really good gloves. And there is a big organizational risk in everyone setting different goals; it increases variation in the organization rather than decreasing it; it makes the organization more loosely rather than more tightly coupled. So take that into consideration before going down that path.

Don’t think in terms of personality. Don’t label people as toxic, negative, or resistant. I’m not saying they’re not. I’m saying that it’s unhelpful to think like that. It puts the locus of control on them and away from you, and it requires you to make inferences about their motives, body language and questions that may not be valid. Don’t make inferences.

Don’t think about other people in terms of what you think they should want. You can’t control what they want. Think instead about organizing in service of the mission of the organization:

Focus on being really clear on what the work is and their part in it, communicating openly and frequently, and building always and forever a shared understanding of what all this looks like. Or, as the great Stephen Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), focus on the part you can control. Let me be more explicit about that. (This builds on CL #41.) If you want people to be motivated to do something, then they (not only you!) must:

  1. understand what it is they are being asked to do (clarity is your friend; coherence is your best friend);
  2. believe that they are capable of doing it, and that doing it will have the desired result (perceived self-efficacy; capacity);
  3. believe that there will be enough time to master this new aspect of their craft before some other urgent request supplants it;
  4. believe that making the change will be worth it.

I repeat here one of my favorite Dylan Wiliam lines: we have to stop thinking about motivation as an input, and start thinking about it as an outcome. When leaders set a direction (and see this Wallace report for why setting direction is an important leadership skill), they want the vision to be inspiring. Better, though, to think in terms of motivation than inspiration. The two are different. Inspiration is emotional, subjective, and often fleeting. And impossible to operationalize. Motivation, on the other hand, has actionable guidance for leaders—make sure that you provide the people in your organization whatever they need to acquire the knowledge and beliefs in the list above. (If the research interests you, search for the work of Gary Latham who wrote, among other things, Workplace Motivation.)

I’ve also been thinking a lot about these three terms, and how they are related: clarity, communication, and coherence.

Clarity is undeniably important. We need to be clear on what we are expecting, why it matters, what it means for teaching and leading. Clarity without communication is useless, obviously. And frequently when we work in districts, we are not able to discern whether leaders are not clear about what the vision is and how they expect others to contribute to it, or whether they have been unable to communicate it. (At the Center we have extensive experience of conducting interviews and focus groups in districts and being told by educators at all levels of the org chart that they are not sure what the district’s strategic focus is.) If you want to read more on clarity, I recommend Heath & Heath (2010) Switch and Brown (2018) Dare to Lead—both of them are really great books that I can highly recommend.

Coherence, on the other hand, is beyond clarity and communication: it is shared understanding. As an illustration of how we overestimate how much shared understanding there is in an organization, my colleague Richard Lemons wrote in Change Leadership (2006), “Achieving a shared vision of what is good instruction is much more difficult than most people imagine. Districts often think there is a common definition of good instruction because all teachers may have attended workshops on particular theories of learning or techniques such as cooperative learning. But there are very few districts in which school and central office administrators, when asked to independently rate a videotaped lesson and provide reasons for their ratings, will find their ratings more or less aligned.” (p. 29).

And there is a whole chapter on reaching a shared understanding of high quality instruction in Stevenson & Weiner (2021) The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders. And you should also take a look at Fullan & Quinn (2015) Coherence. (As I mentioned in a previous CL, Michael Fullan really helped my thinking on this.)

Achieving coherence, and the process of achieving coherence, turn out to be equally important—CL #139 quotes the work on shared cognition that puts the onus on the process. And, and this is a real kicker, some of the things you do to create buy-in may actually undermine coherence. (The example of goal-setting above is a prime case of that.) A lot of you have heard me talk at length about co-creation, so I just want to point out that I do think that co-creation is important, but more at the level of “how can we…?” Emphasis on the “we”—see CL #139 for this also.

Finally, the previous Coaching Letter, in which I wrote about the loss of my friend and colleague Robert Henry, elicited dozens and dozens of responses. I thank everyone who wrote to me—those who shared my love and respect for Robert and those who live half a world away—it was really touching.

As always, please let me know if you have feedback, or if there is anything I can do for you. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
CCSC Services to Districts
Author of The Coaching Letter


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