How effective leaders deal with “push back”

I saw a cartoon recently that hit home. It was a picture of birds sitting on a telephone pole that had several layers. The birds at the top were nice and clean. The further down the layers, the birds were covered with…well…bird poop. It is a parody on an organizational chart where the poop travels downstream, and those at the bottom feel pretty yucky.

I get that. There’s always someone above you in the organization pushing down initiatives, projects, and other accountability processes, and the further they are pushed, the more overwhelmed are those at the bottom.

What happens when those at the bottom say, “Enough?” They “push back.” Pushback can take many different forms, and each form presents a different challenge to leadership. Basically “push back” means, “Nope, ain’t gonna happen; at least until I get comfortable.” It may take the form of silence, or of arguing or even of passive-aggressive behavior that nods, then goes about doing something things as usual.

The way a leader handles pushback has a dramatic impact on a leader’s credibility, both to those above and to her employees.

Think about it this way: someone “higher up” demands a process change and communicates the change and the myriad accompanying tasks to the leader who then must deliver them to staff.

What happens next depends on the magnitude and impact of the change on the daily lives of employees. Generally, the more significant the change, the more pushback occurs. And let’s face it, there is usually more than one bird sitting on top of the org chart passing down requests and demands. Staff groups like HR, finance, marketing, legal and others speak for “the top” in their area of expertise, and all those “speakers” can get very loud.

Your credibility is your brand

As a leader, your success is built upon credibility. Damaging that credibility, in turn, damages your ability to lead.

With downstream process changes, requests, or other assignments your credibility is at risk with two constituents – your superiors and peers who are making the request, and your employees who must execute.

Pushback can be good. Leaders should initially consider pushing back as the equivalent of hearing “something isn’t jiving with me,” and it’s crucial for leaders to listen carefully and ask good questions to understand where the resistance is coming from; it may inform everything from how you execute, to whether you implement. Employees are the best source of context when it comes to how a change will impact their customers, and that is important information.

Pushback can also be harmful to the morale and productivity of a team. Effectively dealing with pushback is a crucial leadership skill. Here are some tips for effectively handling pushback.

Don’t make a knee-jerk reaction

If your first reaction is to think to yourself, “Oh dang, there they go again complaining,” stifle that thought. Resist doing anything other than asking the question, “Why are you upset/frustrated/mad about what we’re asking.” You may want to brace yourself as you allow them to share their issues – it may not be pretty, but it is real to them.

You sometimes can predict pushback; if so, think through how to address what you know will be the issues before you communicate, but don’t let that stop you from really listening.

Try to stay in a neutral zone until you have enough quality information to understand the scope of the issue. Taking sides early and having to walk it back is like putting a sledgehammer to your credibility.

Don’t blame anyone else. Own it

That means you need to do your due diligence thoroughly. Explaining your own leadership decision is more natural than explaining “theirs.” It is up to you to understand why the change or request is being made, what the outcome is expected to be, and any issues that are specific to your team.

I don’t mean smiling and telling the team it’s great when you genuinely believe it is not. Instead, explain what’s happening and why, and how you understand the change will impact your team. Allow the employees to weigh in; that adds to your data.

If you act differently than you feel, your employees will see right through you further damaging your credibility. Be yourself; don’t sell anyone down the river. Treat the issue as a business issue that needs proper attention, rather than getting swept up in emotion.

Get the facts

There may be a time when your team’s pushback contains essential information that could derail the effectiveness of the change or request. The more credible information you can collect and share with “them” the less confrontational your pushback will appear.

Generally, decisions “from above” are grounded in good thinking, but the more complex the decision, the more chance there is for an essential factor to be missed.

If you need to push back, do it armed with really good business information, focused on the business decision and not whether the players are right or wrong.

Your credibility with your peers and others in senior leadership roles depends upon your ability to share upward for the good of the organization as a whole.

Make your own decision, first

After listening to your team, the “owners” of the change or request, and considering as much information as you have, make a decision. You have two options: implement or push back.

If you cannot find sufficient information to support a business-based and unemotional push back, give it up and move to implementation. Own it, communicate it, and get on board. Your decisiveness will go a long way, once you have explained your decision-making process to your team, to help them move forward.

If you have information that may have a meaningful impact on the implementation, communicate the facts and potential consequences.

There are one or two possible outcomes: “they” realize the issue and agree to more work before implementation or “they” believe the change must move forward, even considering your input.

Follow up

Once a final decision has been made, circle back. Let the team know what you did, that you appreciate your feedback and the outcome. If it doesn’t go your way, your decisiveness and ability to move forward will influence their acceptance.

If you do anything other than supporting the final decision, you have lost your ability to lead.

Leadership is tough

It is so tempting to commiserate with your team and get caught up in “woe is us.” Don’t.
To effectively deal with pushback, a leader has to do proper research, listen carefully to all parties, communicate transparently and authentically and be very clear about decisions and next steps.

It might take a little longer but every minute of sincerity builds trust, and trust builds performance.

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