Pushback Management – Giving and Getting It

Every parent’s nightmare:  It’s the Sunday before Christmas and you’re at the mall.  It’s 4:00 and you have to get two more gifts; you won’t have another chance with work deadlines, family coming in town, and a house that’s not ready. Your just-turned-three-year old, however, has been literally dragging her feet despite the little carousel horsey ride which you provided in barter for promised cooperation. Now said three-year old has hit the wall, or more accurately hit the floor. The adorable one, is splayed out, face down on the marble floor, and when you say, “Will you please get up? I promise we’re almost done,” the little one replies loudly, “I can’t.” When you say, “I’m telling you now. Get up.” They practically yell, “No! I can’t” and then add, as if they know the onlookers may be wondering about this little power struggle, “And you can’t make me.”

Who has more weight in this balance of power?

The parent, of course, has physical strength. Hopefully, some intellectual/psychological strategic advantage, too. On the other hand, the little one likely has two huge advantages: first, a will power advantage: It’s unclear how much force they will bring to their thrashing and sit-down effort, but it could be considerable.  Second, the child probably doesn’t know it, but their greatest strength lies in the parent’s need to appear “in control.” That need is highly threatened in this social milieu, with a crowd of onlookers.  The parent’s physical advantage is hemmed in by the judgment that may get cast their way by others. (In addition, the parent is “hearing” from their inner critic who pipes in: “Are you really going to let this 3-year old run the show?”).   I’ll suggest what I think is the parent’s best way forward, but first: What does this case of the young parent’s dilemma have to do with LEADERSHIP, especially in business or politics?

It’s an allegory of course, but for an enduring hierarchical tension present in every family and organization. Bosses, parents, professors, etc., have formal power that outweighs that possessed by their charges.  99 times out of 100, formal power wins the battle. But the lessons from the seeming victory are so often unexamined:

1.  Managers (teachers, principals, clerics) totally lose track of what is happening with their people, and that leads to the pushback-in-the-mall. Like parents who’ve completely forgotten what it feels like to be an exhausted, hungry, scared three-year old (with a harried parent), bosses lose track of what their people are experiencing.  And….that their actions or inactions may be adding to the felt stress of their people.

2. For good reason, people push back, speaking truth to power (indeed good managers in general want them to do so); or sometimes frustrated workers undermine in indirect ways, or quit altogether.

3.  The biggest parallel from the mall scenario:  Managers seldom feel – unconsciously and sometimes consciously – that they are as “in control” as their charges think. Instead, many worry they are losing reputation and/or  control (as if there is a crowd of onlookers watching to see how they get themselves out of this embarrassing scene).  Their competence and control feel threatened, so they frequently push back and sometimes hard.

4. They win the battle, but their use of power aggravates the underlying problem and generates long term resistance.  


  1. Leading up. If you’re speaking truth to power, never forget that the powerful don’t feel powerful but instead feel themselves as stressed as the parent in the mall.  Of course, they shouldn’t!!! They have the damn power, right?  I witness instances of intimidated managers at least on a weekly basis. I see it with clients who are bosses and clients who are bossed.  I look back on my own track record as parent and manager, and I can see how I wasn’t nearly as open as I pretended (to myself).  Bosses will be threatened!  Many of my Chinese students – from undergrads to execs – have taught me about “face,” and how in their culture you would never consciously cast a manager in a light that could seem like attack, embarrassment, or judgment. We could do well to remember the reasons for this – the underlying universal human insecurity that does not disappear  – and perhaps even grows – when authority is conferred.  We should cling to our deep intuitive values around the political, economic and relational power of transparency, openness and challenge, yet we must be cognizant of the degree of difficulty in hearing criticism.
  2. Leading with authority. The lesson for bosses is perhaps more important, because most in subordinate positions know the risks I’ve just described. We’re almost all reticent to push back with our bosses, and when we get some signal that it’s unwelcome, we’ll be even more hesitant. Managers (and parents) know that’s not good for healthy organizations. You should want constructive push-back.  So, the lesson for bosses is to become profoundly aware of your need for control.   Even if you’re the most liberal, egalitarian transcendental meditator see if there isn’t a part of you that needs to appear under control at all times.  This is factory-installed equipment to fear attack, embarrassment, and incompetence. Recognize it.  And then?

I believe the most important thing for the parent we left in the mall is patience. Patience with the child?  Yes.  And patience with the fearful parent themself, who worries they’re losing control and must re-establish that position of power and control (lest the child learn they can throw tantrums at three and swear, smoke, and steal the car at 16). Subordinates generally aren’t attacking you or your competence.  They are frustrated and trying to figure out how to make it work.  Your patience is your and their best ally, as you,

Lead with your best self.

  • This topic is so very timely. I just had a situation at church yesterday. You provided me with some insight that I had not thought about. I want to thank you and I will share with my Sunday School Class Facilitator.

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