Recently, I was facilitating a leader forum discussing the importance of leaders adding value at the right level (and avoiding getting sucked into the weeds). One audience member suggested that it was important to “push back” when your manager asks you to get involved in work that’s below the appropriate level. A smart and thoughtful leader in the room challenged that point. “We need to stop using the language of pushing back. No one wants to be pushed. We need to think about it differently.”
He was bang on. When you frame disagreement as pushing back, you immediately set up an oppositional dynamic. If in you’re mind you’re pushing back, you’re likely to trigger the “equal and opposite reaction” that is more than just a physical truth of the universe; it’s a psychological one too. Being pushed seldom leads your colleague to change his mind. Instead, you activate resistance and reduce the likelihood that your perspective will be considered or acted upon.
So what’s the alternative? I am certainly not advocating that you roll over and relent when someone suggests you do something that you shouldn’t be doing. I’m just agreeing with the leader in that forum that there is a better way to think about it than pushing back.
The image I have in my head is the opposite of pushing back. Imagine a dance between two partners. Rather than the typical scenario where the male partner leads by stepping into the female partner’s space (pushing her backward), imagine a scenario where the female takes the lead (ladies, this might not be a stretch). In this case, the leader steps backward, compelling her partner to step forward toward her. She’s doing the unnatural part (by going backward) and he is able to stay on his front foot, stay balanced, and follow. She takes the dance where it needs to go, but without creating an uncomfortable or awkward situation for her partner.
When you want to disagree with someone, the secret is to lead the other person forward rather than pushing them back.
To lead someone forward, take a step backward but in the right direction.
In the example from the leader forum, the person disagreed with how his boss wanted him to spend his time. The first step backward in this case would be to state the boss’ request. “So, you would like me to work on the event details for the customer conference.” The step backward here is that you’re reinforcing the boss’ request (and therefore making room for the idea that you might get involved in inappropriate work). The reason that it’s a step in the right direction is that you’re setting up a conversation about the opportunity cost of getting involved.
The next step is to ask about trade offs or consequences. For example, you could say, “I had been prioritizing my time toward preparing the content for the customer panel. Would you like me to leave the panel to Bob and put my focus on the event logistics?” You’ve pointed out the trade-offs required for you to get more involved in the logistics but kept your boss on the front foot by leaving the decision in her hands.
If your boss continues to ask you to get involved at the wrong level, you can try one or two more attempts to lead her in a new direction. “When would you like me to re-engage in the customer panel?” or “Which of the logistical details do you want me to pay particular attention to?” You are continuing to make space for your boss to come toward your position.
If after several attempts you feel that you’re not going to change your boss’ perspective, stop and make your concerns known. “I’m worried that the customer panel needs my attention more than the logistical details do. I respect your decision and I’ll get right on it.” That way you are standing firm, without pushing back.
The language you use makes a big difference in how you think about an uncomfortable interaction with a manager or colleague. If you think about it as pushing back, you’ll probably generate resistance. If you think about it as leading forward, you’ll create a much more constructive conversation.