Commander’s Intent: How to Persuade Your Team to Buy Into Your Ideas

Andy Cook
May 21, 2020

The best leaders don’t just get their team to follow orders. They make them want to follow orders.

However, anybody who’s led a team knows drumming up that level of passion is much easier said than done. Morale always seems to be in short supply in the business world. In fact, according to Gallup, only 34% of U.S. workers feel involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace.

Fortunately, there’s a simple yet powerful communication principle that can boost your team’s morale and persuade them to fully buy into your ideas. It’s called Commander’s Intent.

What Is Commander’s Intent?

Commander’s Intent is the explanation behind why a task must be completed after it’s assigned to someone. Humans are inherently purpose-driven, so, as a leader, injecting purpose into a task is crucial for boosting your team’s willingness to do things right and do things well.

How to Leverage Commander’s Intent

The “why” behind your task fuels your team’s motivation to complete it. But what’s arguably just as important as your task’s purpose is how you communicate it to your team.

In 2019, two ER doctors conducted a study where they set up a hypothetical medical scenario to understand when patients are most likely to follow a doctor’s recommendations.

At the beginning of the study, they told their participants they had a hypothetical illness that gave them a sore throat for three days and also made it hard to swallow. Additionally, they told them there was a 50% chance they had strep throat.

Next, the doctors divided the participants into four groups and tested how the recommendation’s order of information influenced the participants’ behavior:

  • Group 1 received a doctor’s recommendation not to take the antibiotics without any reasoning behind the opinion.
  • Group 2 received information about the antibiotics’ health risks without a specific recommendation.
  • Group 3 received the recommendation not to take the antibiotics first and were then given the reasoning behind the advice (the antibiotics’ health risks).
  • Group 4 received information about the antibiotics’ health risks and then the recommendation not to take the antibiotics.

At the end of the study, the doctors discovered that Group 4 followed the doctor’s recommendation at the highest clip. The next highest were Group 3, Group 2, and then Group 1.

In sum, informing patients about a particular drug’s health risks and then recommending them not to take the drug led to the highest percentage of the patients accepting the doctor’s advice.

In the business world, this study reveals that the most effective way to persuade your team to buy into your ideas is relaying the information that informed your decision first—like its purpose or goal—and then passing on your request.

commander's intent - how to get your team to buy in

Researchers suggest that communicating your request in this order respects people’s autonomy, which is a basic psychological need. If you communicate it in the opposite way—request first, then articulate the reasoning behind it—you risk appearing authoritarian, which can cause your team to block out the task’s purpose while you convey it to them.

Commander’s Intent Example

To help you further grasp Commander’s Intent, here’s an example of how a leader could persuade their team to focus more of their efforts on creating episodic video series instead of traditional inbound marketing.

Hey team,

Nowadays, the internet is more crowded than ever. In fact, over 4 million blog posts are published every single day. As marketers, we strive to genuinely help our audience and emotionally connect with them. But it’s getting increasingly difficult to do that with traditional inbound marketing.

So, how do we adapt?

Well, since humans are programmed to crave and seek narrative and the average U.S. adult watches six hours of video per day, we’ve decided to cut through the noise and, in turn, serve our audience by focusing more of our team’s efforts on crafting a narrative-driven video series. With this in mind, I’d love to see a concept for a video series from each of you by the end of the week.

Extremely Persuasive Marketing Leader

Notice how, in this example, the marketing leader led with evidence that supported their request, which they then relayed at the very end of the paragraph? This makes their request more understandable and convincing.

Don’t Demand—Command

Failing to explain why your team should complete a task is a surefire way to lower morale. Your teammates will do the job, but they won’t understand why they’re doing it — and, even worse, they won’t be happy about it.

So, as managers, let’s get our teams on our side before we ask them to do anything, and inject a clear purpose into every task at hand.