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  • Writer's pictureMIT Sloan Management Summary

Managing Pushback Effectively to Build Relationships

In the realm of leadership, there exists a powerful, but often underutilized, skill: namely the ability to navigate resistance, dissent, and disagreement, according to Phillip G. Clampit and Bob DeKoch as republished in a recent MIT Sloan Management Review.


Person Managing Pushback

This is a summary of how to handle pushback effectively, with the goal of empowering leaders to turn resistance into a catalyst. Clampit & DeKock stress that it is within these moments of pushback that leaders have a unique opportunity to foster organizational growth and learning, especially when it is particularly vital e.g. during times of change, such as the post-pandemic office transitions that many organizations are still currently grappling with.


Understanding the Importance of Managing Pushback


The article emphasises how Pushback, in its various forms, provides leaders with an opportunity to deepen their team's understanding and build support. This approach encourages candour, humility, adaptation, and trust, all of which help to steer pushback away from becoming a disruptive force within an organization.


Leaders Common Mistakes in Managing Pushback


According to the authors, Leaders frequently make three fundamental errors when confronted with resistance:


1. Suppressing Uncertainty: One common response to pushback is an attempt to eliminate uncertainty. This may involve marginalizing concerns, offering false assurances, or relying on authoritarian responses. Unfortunately, these practices erode trust over the long term. Their research suggests that even employees seeking more certainty in their work lives desire organizations and its leaders to resist the urge to paper over uncertainty, instead focusing on how to discover the answers even when they are unknown.


2. Ignoring Power Dynamics: Power dynamics within an organization can significantly influence the nature of pushback. Leaders with authority, whether positional or acquired, can inadvertently suppress open discussion. This suppression often leads to hidden resistance and a false sense of agreement. To address this issue, they believe leaders must recognize the impact of power imbalances on the quality of discussions and actively work to mitigate any disruptive dynamics.


3. Assuming Loudest Voices Represent Consensus: Not all forms of pushback are loud and vocal. Some are subtle, such as questions raised during meetings or a general lack of engagement. Leaders often make the mistake of giving undue attention to the most vocal employees, assuming that they represent majority opinion. However, this can lead to skewed perceptions of support or divisiveness. On the other hand, the authors state that effective leaders are aware of this danger and seek to strike a balance between overlooking concerns and undermining potential support.


Recommendations for Engaging with Pushback


To navigate pushback effectively, leaders should adhere to five key guidelines:


1. Set Ground Rules: Clear rules for discussions can help create an environment that fosters open dialogue and respect for diverse viewpoints. These rules not only set expectations but also temper disrespectful advocacy, making pushback opportunities more valuable for everyone involved.


2. Orient the Team: Providing clarity on what to expect from pushback opportunities is essential. Team members should understand that alternative outcomes beyond simple acceptance or rejection are possible. This approach encourages a more productive and thoughtful discussion.


3. Select the Right Forums: The setting in which discussions take place can significantly impact the quality of pushback. Some environments, such as town hall gatherings or online forums, can discourage constructive inquiry and respectful debate. Effective leaders choose appropriate forums that maximize opportunities for insightful questions, deliberative discourse, and respectful disagreement.


4. Focus on Education Before Advocacy: Effective leaders encourage discussions that include opposing viewpoints and existing questions. They understand that a single, unchallenged perspective is often insufficient to build a solid understanding. Advocacy is important, but it should come after educating all parties involved, creating room for further deliberation and differing views.


5. Signpost Inflection Points: Leaders should communicate clearly when the time for pushback has ended. This helps prevent silent, unspoken rules from taking root, which can hinder open and productive discussions. These signposts prevent confusion and ensure that dissenting voices continue to be heard.


Success Story


To illustrate the power of these principles in practice, Clampit and DeKoch looked at the case of Laurie Butz, CEO of Capital Credit Union, where pushback was effectively managed when reintroducing face-to-face all-employee meetings.


Acknowledging employee concerns and simultaneously justifying her decision, she experienced increased engagement and more thoughtful discussions among her team. This demonstrates how a leader who embraces uncertainty, addresses power dynamics, and respects all voices can drive organizational growth and progress.


Conclusion


Effectively handling pushback is a skill that leaders should master to foster organizational growth and progress. By embracing uncertainty, addressing power dynamics, and respecting all voices, leaders can build trust, encourage adaptability, and ultimately drive their organizations forward in a rapidly changing world.

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