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. (more…)