Can you get ahead at work if you don't 'buy in'?
By Kathryn Lindsay
6th October 2021
Subscribing to a company's culture is a big component of succeeding in a job. What happens when you don’t want to jump on the bandwagon?
On Will’s first day as an engineer at a digital payment-services company, based in California’s Bay Area, an employee gave him and his fellow new hires a tour of the office. Their guide stopped them in front of a sign, emblazoned with the company’s core value: universally empowering the platform’s users.
Over and over again, says Will, the company emphasised this mission, expecting workers to ‘buy in’ – in meetings, leadership conversations, promotional videos about the company’s achievements. “That was always the focus,” says Will.
Although he was on board initially, happily attending company events and working at the weekend, Will’s enthusiasm for the company’s mission faded during his four-year tenure. He felt his employer didn’t actually practise what it so emphatically preached, and he started to notice discrepancies between their mission and what he was seeing play out. He became increasingly disenchanted with his work, realising he no longer ‘bought in’ to the company’s core values.
“My lack of investment in the mission statement definitely led to apathy,” says Will. “That got reflected in my feedback during those promotion cycles, for sure.” Finally, he quit, without another job lined up.
‘Buying in’ can mean many things, depending on the organisation. At the most basic level, buy-in is the acceptance, support and participation in a company’s plan, goal or policy. At some places, it may be as simple as wearing a company’s T-shirts, or excitedly posting on LinkedIn about an organisation’s mission. In other cases, it can manifest as pressure to join social events with colleagues, or work above and beyond a job description.
According to William Becker, a professor of management at the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech, US, buying in can mean workers “consider the organisation part of [themselves]”. In many cases, employees not only get on board with a company’s stated mission, but also the culture, and feel like they share values with the organisation.
Many companies that value employee buy-in particularly look for workers to be corporate evangelists outside of the office (Credit: Getty Images)
But while many workers buy in to the companies they work for when they’re first hired, some people find their enthusiasm fades. Several factors can lead to a loss of buy-in, like when workers believe companies fail to live up to their values, or feel there’s an uneven exchange between employee and employer. Although this can be disappointing for workers, and even cause them to leave jobs, not buying in can, in some cases, hamper success and leave workers feeling both professionally and personally isolated.
The rise of buy-in
Although the concept of buy-in may seem relatively new, Nikki Blacksmith, an organisational psychologist who co-founded the start-up advisory resource Blackhawke, says we can trace the phenomenon back to the late 1900s – the emergence of the “knowledge economy”.
As world economies began transitioning from industrial manufacturing to research-based and technology industries, workers in these more advanced economies had the luxury of prioritising meaningful work over basic survival needs.Now, for a growing swath of the population, especially in advanced economies such as the US, “jobs are less and less about pure security and safety needs, and more and more about identity and belonging needs and even self-actualisation,” says Darko Lovrich, a psychologist who works with founders and entrepreneurs.
Increasingly, experts say, employers and potential workers expect to share the same core values. “As we started to look at jobs as more of a source of meaning, fulfilment and personal development, the notion of buy-in started to become more and more important,” adds Lovrich.
People don't buy in when they think the exchange is no longer acceptable – Jennifer Deal ★
And many workers do see the work they do as meaningfully contributing to their company’s overall mission, says Jennifer Deal, senior research scientist at the Center for Effective Organizations in the Marshall Business School, University of Southern California. Indeed, research shows workers increasingly value working for mission-driven companies, whose causes they care for. And as an increasing number of companies advertise themselves as mission based to attract talent, especially in dense industries, employee buy-in has become a major part of some corporate cultures.
‘I was definitely on the outskirts’
There can be an upside to ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’. For workers like Will, buying into an organisation’s culture can motivate and bond employees, and give them a sense of purpose, which can be fulfilling – something important for both worker and employees alike.
“You can have all these people together that really believe in something, [and] what's going to emerge is more than just what each one brings to the table,” says Blacksmith. “Things come from the team that you wouldn't get otherwise that just give you a competitive advantage.”
She adds buy-in can also help an employee emotionally navigate potential turmoil during their tenure, something particularly prevalent in start-ups and creative industries. “People hate uncertainty,” says Blacksmith. "So, in order to tolerate that and manage that in your own brain, you have to really believe that it's there for a reason and that you’re doing it for a reason.”
Some employees who don't eagerly attend after-work events with the rest of a company's staff can find themselves at a disadvantage later on (Credit: Getty Images)
But some employees may feel companies’ expectations exceed what’s reasonable.
K Ann, who worked for four years at an Austin, Texas-based software company, felt her employer expected too much beyond her regular work to be considered a satisfactory employee. “It was very strongly encouraged to attend [company events] at the expense of actually being able to complete your day’s work during normal working hours,” she says. “I was ‘volun-told’ to moderate a panel one year because my manager thought I wasn’t ‘visible enough for a promotion’.” She adds she felt “ragged on” for her “lack of commitment” for some time after she didn’t wear the company’s colours to work like the rest of her colleagues on the day of a company celebration.
Disillusionment isn’t uncommon for workers, says University of Southern California’s Deal. “People don't buy in when they think the exchange is no longer acceptable.”
And although some workers push through this dissonance, the workers who become jaded as a result can find themselves at a disadvantage. “As you start to doubt [your company’s mission] or think it's hypocritical – or worse, think it's misguided and actually harming the world – the impacts on your motivation are astounding and quick,” says Lovrich. Without this motivation, employees are far less likely to receive recognition or promotions for their work.
“What you naturally like to do, the company doesn't value as much, so they're not looking for it and they're not rewarding it,” adds Murray Barrick, the Robertson Chair in Business at the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University, US.
I was definitely on the outskirts of the community they’d created – I Rebecca
Writer I Rebecca felt those repercussions at her digital media company in New York City. “I remember getting some devastating feedback that some high-ranking people didn’t think I enjoyed my job because I wasn’t vocal in virtual meetings and had my camera off,” she says. She pointed out she was working through a pandemic and a period of racial unrest in the country, but she says she felt “penalised for it through isolation”. She says, “I was definitely on the outskirts of the community they’d created.”
Getting returns for what you’re giving
To buy in or not to buy in, then?
Distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable expectations of buy-in from companies is a very individualised decision, says Deal. “The question is, do you feel like you're getting a reasonable amount for what you're giving?” she says. “And the getting isn't just the pay. It’s also a bunch of things that are intangible. Like, what kind of positioning are you getting in the job for whatever you're going to do next? What kind of status do you get to your job? What kind of perks come along with it?”
If you don't actually buy in but still stick to your work, Becker says it is possible to get ahead – it just won't be as personally rewarding. “As you succeed, you open lots of opportunities,” he says. “Maybe there's a chance that you can get to a level where you can start to change things, and you can find enough satisfaction in what you do.”
Ultimately, for workers, the decision to go all in is personal – some employees may find their tolerance for company cheerleading is higher (and more authentic) than others. So, when it comes to buy-in, buyer beware.
All workers interviewed by BBC Worklife are withholding surnames due to concerns of professional ramification