Leadership advice

Managers: How to deal with ‘automatic pushback’

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

I’m here today to save you some headaches and heartburn, the kind that arise when you feel weighed down by opposition and negativity.

Ready for some preventive medicine? Read on:

As a manager, you have the joy — and challenge — of introducing new ideas, duties, assignments and projects to your staff members.

In your dreams, the response in those conversations is: “This is great! Count me in!”

In reality, the replies can be instant, less-than-enthusiastic questions about the necessity, the rationale, the process and the potential downsides. Let’s call it  “automatic pushback.”

How do the best leaders deal with this challenge? 

They anticipate it and understand it. That’s because automatic pushback is pretty normal. 

In one of my favorite books about change, “Switch,” researchers Dan and Chip Heath talk about “problem focus” — the tendency of people to put greater weight on the bad instead of the good. “Across the board,” they write, “we seem wired to focus on the negative.”

People are primed to protect themselves against threats to their self-image, their security and their status. Their first thoughts may not be about the potential good in the new idea you present to them. They may immediately think about the downsides and risks it might pose.

When managers don’t understand that this kind of response is fairly predictable, they may mistake it for an act of animus. A personal attack. The beginning of a fight. 

In the interest of your own health and happiness, start viewing initial negativity as something to be expected. Take a deep breath when it happens. Exhale.

Consider it an opportunity to listen, inform and influence. The other person has some worries and fears to get past. Find out the reasons instead of fuming about why your colleague doesn’t immediately endorse your position.

Here are some other things to keep in mind when facing automatic pushback:

  • People love ideas and solutions of their own creation. If your idea leaves no space for them to adapt it, they’re less likely to adopt it. Invite their input.
  • People may fear there’s a second agenda behind what you’re proposing to them. Is there more to the story than what you’re sharing? Always be forthcoming.
  • Have you taken other stakeholders into account? When asked to do something or change something, people often worry about the impact on others. That’s especially the case if you’ve developed a reputation for being quick to act without fully considering the implications.
  • Have people on your team undergone a lot of painful change, including mandates that didn’t produce positive results? It’s good to acknowledge rather than ignore that as you discuss the new initiative.
  • Are you prepared to answer questions about next steps? Resources? Timelines? What success looks like?

It’s also important to know how the person you’re talking with processes information. Some people who are initially negative just need time to think about it — and their smart managers give them exactly that, with an appointment to pick up the conversation soon.

Some people love to talk things through, and relish the back-and-forth. A reporter in my newsroom once gave me great advice after we’d butted heads on some issue I’ve long forgotten. He told me that to really understand him, I needed to know that he was on the debate team in college and “can take any side of an issue and convince myself I’m right.” From that point on, I saw his pushback as an intellectual exercise with a fairly competitive and articulate debater rather than negativity or disrespect. It really changed our conversations.

Make no mistake, there are always going to be a few people who take pleasure in shooting down the ideas of others — including their boss’s. Smart managers understand that those individuals are unfortunate outliers, and they address that problem.

But smart managers don’t confuse such bullying behaviors with the automatic pushback that can come from even the most collegial, most high-performing employees. 

Leaders rely on their experience, education and emotional intelligence to work through the resistance, with good outcomes for everyone.

And they do one more thing: They check their own behavior when they are the person being presented with that new idea, duty or assignment. Knowing what they know about pushback, they try to inflict less of it on others. When they feel it is absolutely necessary, they frame as constructively as possible, look for mutual solutions and avoid causing headaches and heartburn.

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Paul LeSage
Paul LeSage
6 months ago

I couldn’t agree more. Spot on. About half way through my management life, I kind of figured this out.