What Cartoonists Can Teach Us About Getting Buy-In

Have you ever had an idea you loved, and your boss immediately started poking holes in it? Or have you created a presentation and your colleagues responded with a list of things you should add?

As humans, we’re instinctively wired to want to point out flaws. Further, ambitious people are eager to put their mark on new developments. Everyone wants to play a part in something exciting.

In graphic design, they call this the ‘hair arms’ phenomenon. Here’s how it goes, according to Jessica Frease, a graphic designer:

“So the story goes that probably a long while ago – probably in the ’30s or ’40s – they had a lead animators, but they also had creative directors. And when the lead animators would make concept designs, meaning, like, character development, they’d be so proud of these characters. And they would go to their art directors, and their art directors would change something constantly even though they thought it was their best work.” 

Sound familiar? You do great work and bring it to someone (usually your boss) who wants to put their own spin on things? Here’s where it gets interesting.

Frease continues, “So what they did was to distract the art directors from making other changes, they would automatically add hair on the arms of each character. Then, they would bring it into the big meeting with all the head honchos. And those guys would say oh, well, you’ve got to get rid of the hair on the arms. That’s where the term ‘hairy arms’ comes from.”

Even though the animators knew having hair on the cartoon’s arms looked ridiculous, they added it anyway, because they wanted to give the big boss a way to change something, without taking away from the original vision for the character.

Should you try to manipulate your boss or peers by including proverbial ‘hairy arms’ in your work product? Not really. As tempting as it may be to intentionally misalign slides or include a glaringly obvious typo, this practice can cost you what might be valuable feedback. You want your boss’s brain, and the brains of your peers, working to provide a meaningful response (vs succumbing to a little trick).

Here are two tips to help you achieve both helpful feedback and get the buy-in you need:

Ask for feedback early. When you pour your blood, sweat, and tears into something and wait until it’s (in your view) 100% perfect, you’re setting yourself up for feedback that stings. Asking for feedback early in the process, when your own brain is more flexible, gives you room to pivot. Even if you don’t act on the feedback, engaging others early enables them to feel like they are part of the process rather than merely responding to the finished result.

Ask for specific feedback. Asking for feedback on an entire presentation, idea, or product leaves a wide-open door for critique that might not be helpful. Be clear about your ask. Is it the positioning of your opening remarks? The functionality of a key feature? The more clear and more direct you are about where you’d like feedback, the more valuable the feedback will become.

Making a specific ask will help your energy, too. You won’t feel like someone poked a bunch of holes in your entire project; they simply fulfilled your request for specific support.

This approach allows you to get the best of both worlds. Your boss or peers feel like they contributed because they did. And you still retain the ownership and pride in your work.