Seeking Staff Buy In? Ask the Right Questions!

One of the questions I am most frequently asked when working with schools across the province centers around visionary and change leadership and that is, “How do I obtain staff buy in”?

I have spent a lot of time reflecting on this question through my leadership experiences and the lessons I have learned as principal in two different schools. I’ve come to a realization that the issue isn’t in relation to is related to a fundamental problem with the question!

“Buy in” is not something that you can obtain. It is not collectively given as a staff at the onset. In the big picture, having whole staff buy in is not required at the onset to move forward with change initiatives and is largely an unrealistic expectation to set as a leader. Change takes time, with different phases of adoption that need to be recognized (for more on this idea, see Diffusion of Innovation theory, developed by Rodgers in 1962)

The question we should be asking is how do I, as a leader, or we, as a leadership team, establish the conditions that allow an innovation to be introduced, reflected upon, experimented with, and refined through an iterative cycle, with multiple entry points for different staff team members at different points in the journey. This is a question that requires us to move beyond the presenting issue itself to examining the relationships we have fostered and our school culture as a whole. We must intentionally and mindfully set the stage for change to flourish:


Building trusting and authentic relationships with and among staff is critical. Honoring that our work is ever changing and complex is vital. We also need to step back to recognize that the pressures teachers are under to adapt are tremendous. The relationships we establish go a long way in developing a healthy and highly efficacious environment.

Some considerations for leaders:

  • Appreciate where teachers are in their knowledge and experience and be mindful of the pace of change implementation. Find opportunities to recognize the knowledge and experience of the team and individuals within it. Remind your team members that it’s okay to be at different stages of implementation personally - we don’t all need to be early adopters!
  • When the leadership team is involved and keeps their finger on the pulse of what is happening in their culture, they gain an understanding of when to push change and when and where to provide additional support so we differentiate for change. Be part of the change, not just speaking to it from afar. Knowing that “we’re all in this together” goes a long way in establishing trust and credibility.
  • Spend the time to listen to staff and to ask intentional questions that provoke and guide thinking.Listening and asking questions are critically important for the leader, to help the team arrive and know that it’s safe to ask questions at any point along the journey.


Shifting the culture from a one and done “buy in” mindset to a culture in which we collectively determine our students needs through discussion, failing forward and learning by doing is critical. As leaders, have we communicated the level of urgency surrounding those needs? Determining the supporting structures and frameworks throughout the process is key in establishing a learning culture.

Some considerations for leaders:

  • Welcome and encourage thought provoking discussions. Create the intentional space for these discussions to happen in a variety of structures.
  • Regularly examine practice. This can be accomplished through pertinent book studies; articles; or quotes that get to the heart of the work you are trying to accomplish. It can be an effective way to establish the moral imperative or the why connected to our ever-evolving work.
  • Make asking questions that challenge our way of thinking and performing a part of your practice. Continually infuse questions for consideration and discussion to normalize the practice of reflection and debate.
  • Tie in a professional learning component with guiding questions into your meetings with staff .
  • Connect cultural expectations into your meeting norms and your vision and mission.

When relationships and culture are such that we trust one another and depend on one another’s expertise, we create a system in which we look at evidence through a visionary lense and plan for necessary change in a meaningful way. Buy in becomes a moot point when decisions are made in a collective manner, through thoughtful process and with an understanding of how real change happens in a learning organization.

Author: Marilyn Schmitke