Tag Archive for: Employees

Chris Kolenda: How I learned to gain buy-in

How I learned to gain buy-in

For most of my military career, gaining buy-in for change was pretty easy.

I had an excellent system for acquiring feedback, so I learned what frustrated my troopers and took action to address the problems. They readily helped me implement the changes. I presumed it was because they had confidence the game plan would work.

Afghanistan changed all of that.

In addition to clarity and confidence, people buy-in when they believe doing so leaves them better off. You can’t lecture people into that belief. They need to see it for themselves.

We were fighting for our lives against an enemy that seemed to get stronger even as we inflicted significant casualties. We believed people wanted us to attack the enemy and support the Afghan government officials. We were flat wrong. About 95% of the people we thought we were helping were actually trying to kill us, which is why their numbers swelled.

Three of our troopers were killed in those first sixty days of a 450-day deployment. More of the same was the safer choice regarding what the military expected, but it would not improve the situation. 

I’m a voracious reader and feedback consumer, so I looked to history, trusted advice, inputs from paratroopers and elders, and behavioral sciences for answers.   

To succeed, we had to build relationships with Afghans, especially those close to the insurgents. The challenges included getting our troopers to take risks in reaching out and convincing Afghans (many of whom were angry at international forces and the Afghan government) to reciprocate.

Asking troopers to go against years of training and Afghans to let go of decades of hatred toward foreign forces required clarity, confidence, and belief that change would make them better off. 

Chris Kolenda Drawing: 3 Elements of Buy-In

First, we had to clearly express what we wanted our troopers to do and the benefits of doing so. “X so that Y” is your formula for expressing clear guidance. We wanted to build relationships so that Afghans would see us as partners in their success, which would reduce incentives towards violence. 

Improving relationships with Afghans required trust-building. “Afghans hear with their eyes,” one elder told me—they believe what they see. We started with small measures and built from there.   

Our troopers and Afghans were confident the approach would work, provided the other side lived up to their commitments. Trust-building was essential for reinforcing confidence.

Inspiring belief was the biggest challenge. People have to believe they will be better off for making the change. Otherwise, they will undermine the initiative. Military tactics that seemed to improve safety, such as maintaining a threatening posture, aggressive driving, etc. actually increased hostilities thus heightening risk of injury or death. 

Small, incremental wins increased belief, which led to more significant measures in a virtuous cycle. Our troopers saw that stronger relationships reduced violence and improved security. Afghans saw that working together on mutually-agreed measures that they chose strengthened local governance and improved quality of life. Eventually, the top insurgent group in the area stopped fighting and switched sides.

You cannot force people to believe that they’re better off, they have to come to the conclusion for themselves. Discussing the potential change and asking your employees how they will be affected can reveal areas of opportunity. Giving people the agency to strengthen the positives and mitigate the negatives increases their sense of ownership and belief in the new policy or initiative.

How well is this process working for you? Email me to let me know. I love cheering your success and helping you get over obstacles.

Did you know that you read my newsletter over 50% of the time? I’m thrilled that there is so much value out in it.  

One of the ways you increase your value to others is by sharing what helps you grow. Whether it’s this blog or my newsletter or another, share and encourage your colleagues to experience what’s valuable to you. Sharing wisdom is like a rising tide lifting all boats.

6 Words you Should Never say to your Employees

Can I give you some feedback?


Those six words create anxiety in even the most self-assured and high-performing employees because they know what’s coming next.

The feedback sandwich.

Feedback employees

You hate giving feedback because you don’t want people to feel bad, so you try softening the blow by saying something nice up front and at the end while sandwiching the criticism in the middle.

You: “Joe, can I give you some feedback?”

Joe, cringing, “Uh, sure.”

You: “I liked your presentation. However, slide seven was too complicated; you said um and ‘you know’ way too many times, didn’t handle the third question very well, and seemed tired at the end. Nice work, overall, though.”


That’s a classic feedback sandwich. The empty compliments are like the slices of bread; the criticism is the meat in the middle. No matter how you slice it, it still tastes like sh!t.

You feel better, but Joe’s ready to vote with his feet.

You might think the presentation was good, except for the points you mentioned, but Joe feels your compliments are insincere. You made the standard error of generalized compliments and specific criticisms. It’s easy for Joe to tell where you spent your mental energy and what you think.

It’s even worse because Joe believes you’re attacking him personally. Notice that you gave low-utility criticism. Joe cannot act on any of it. You’ve given him no way to get better.

Sound familiar?

What if you provided balanced, forward-looking feedback?

  1. First, you need a review after every presentation or significant action.
  2. You should provide compliments with the same level of specificity as the criticism.
  3. You must offer high utility: your compliments and criticisms should be actionable.
  4. Focus on action steps to sustain what’s awesome and improve what’s not.

You’re right back on track with:

  • “Let’s have our normal review.”
  • “Joe, slides 1-6 were terrific — tight, clear, and focused. Slide 7 was difficult to understand. In what ways can you make slide seven more like slides 1-6?”
  • “You nailed questions 1, 2, and 4 with specific answers backed up by data. What caught you off guard about question 3? What can I do to help you prepare for those big-picture questions?”

You get the idea. Your feedback (or feed-forward) needs to focus on improvement, not criticism. Joe needs to know you’ve got his back and want him to be successful.


Get more action steps about leadership and accountability in these recent podcast interviews:

Conflict management and leadership in Wake-up Call hosted by Mark Goulston. https://mywakeupcall.libsyn.com/ep-370-chris-kolenda

Gaining buy-inModern Leadership hosted by Jake Carlson: https://jakeacarlson.com/288-biking-1700-miles-for-my-troops-with-chris-kolenda/

Leaders as exemplars in Get Uncomfortable with Shae McMaster: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/get-uncomfortable/id1557553154?i=1000575764193

How to get good at getting better: Getting Down to Business with Shalom Klein. https://anchor.fm/shalom-klein/episodes/Podcast-of-Get-Down-To-Business-with-Shalom-Klein–08142022—Chris-Kolenda–Chris-Kolenda-and-Kimberly-Janson-e1mbu0q