Five Ways Leaders Can Turn Pushback Into Progress
By effectively responding to ambivalence, disagreement, or resistance, leaders can boost team learning while moving their organization forward.
Effectively responding to pushback may well rank as one of the most important competencies that leaders can possess, and it’s especially critical during times of transition, like returning to the office post-pandemic. Such resistance to an organizational policy, directive, or decision can take many forms, ranging from voicing concerns and raising questions to active opposition and sabotage.1
Effective leaders think of pushback as an opportunity to boost their team’s learning while moving their organization forward. The objective should be to increase people’s understanding and build support by tempering both advocate enthusiasm and contrarian pessimism. This deeper level of understanding, while not necessarily satisfying to all in the moment, fosters a climate of candor, humility, adaptation, and trust, thereby subtly steering pushback away from latent disruptive tendencies.
A Pushback Success Story
Laurie Butz, the CEO of Capital Credit Union, routinely uses these guidelines to lean into pushback to fully understand what employees believe they are losing as new initiatives roll out. For example, as the COVID-19 threat faded, she sought to restart face-to-face all-employee meetings to enhance inclusiveness and engage in more robust, thoughtful discussions about pending initiatives. She believes that the educational process goes in both directions, which requires more face-to-face forums that encourage adherence to more productive discussion ground rules than screen-enabled venting.
Yet that announcement was greeted with considerable pushback by employees who faced a long commute to the twice-a-year gatherings. Some used online surveys to voice concerns about the expense and time, while others expressed their discontent directly to their immediate supervisor, arguing that “Zoom meetings worked pretty well during COVID.”
Butz acknowledged these concerns while respectfully justifying the in-person gathering because, after all, “you could have a Zoom wedding, but something important would be missing.” Similar messaging was echoed in more personal channels by her “ambassadors” (opinion leaders).
Over time, the in-person meetings (1) increased employee engagement, (2) renewed employee interest in being a part of the process, and (3) spawned more thoughtful discussions of key issues. Quantitative evidence backed up these observations. For example, participation in all-employee surveys increased from 60% to 91% after the in-person meetings resumed, and 83% of survey respondents reported that they were “highly engaged in their work.” Anecdotal evidence also emerged: Employees often left the in-person meetings inquiring, “When will we have another opportunity to meet like this?”
Suppressing pushback by repressing uncertainty, invoking power dynamics, and paying too much attention to the most vocal employees may well induce short-term conformity and compliance at the expense of undermining long-term trust. Adroitly and respectfully managing pushback involves an upfront time commitment that engages employees while supplying forward momentum. The bonus: Leaders learn to more subtly influence how employees interpret trends, events, and decisions and develop greater insight into emerging issues.
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