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.
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Drawing on decades of research, C-suite observations, and interviews, we’ve identified the major mistakes leaders make when encountering pushback and offer five guidelines to help them better respond.
What Doesn’t Work
Leaders make three primary mistakes when facing ambivalence, disagreement, or resistance:
Suppressing uncertainty. Pushback increases uncertainty when questions are raised that might not have immediate answers or perspectives are introduced that might have recently emerged or been sidelined or overlooked. Some leaders respond to uncertainty-induced pushback by marginalizing concerns, offering placating assurances, or invoking authoritarian voices. Such practices offer false certainty that undermines trust in the long term.
According to our research, even employees who seek more certainty in their work lives want their organizations to embrace uncertainty.2 Effective leaders avoid the temptation to paper over uncertainty, even when they face demands for a level of certainty that simply doesn’t exist. Even if they don’t know the answers now, they can provide an operating level of certainty by discussing how they will find those answers.
Ignoring power dynamics. Leaders with positional or acquired status directly or subtly influence the nature of the pushback. Highly authoritarian power structures tend to drive pushback underground. Likewise, more subtle power signals can suppress open discussion of legitimate concerns. Leaders might then wrongly equate silence with agreement. Some people will feign acceptance while others sow dissent in the “meeting after the meeting,” thereby revealing and often amplifying people’s fears.
1. J. Kassing, “Dissent in Organizations” (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2011).
2. P.G. Clampitt and R.J. DeKoch, “Embracing Uncertainty: The Essence of Leadership” (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2001).
3. M. Toubiana and C. Zietsma, “The Message Is on the Wall? Emotions, Social Media and the Dynamics of Institutional Complexity,” Academy of Management Journal 60, no. 3 (June 2017): 922-953.