Leadership

Why ‘push’ and ‘pull’ management styles are key to successful organizational change

With any change comes uncertainty, but this can be mitigated by leadership's ability to apply 'pushing' and 'pulling' management styles.

With any change comes uncertainty, but this can be mitigated by leadership's ability to apply 'pushing' and 'pulling' management styles. Image: Unsplash/Kraken Images

Andrea Belk Olson
CEO, Pragmadik
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Leadership

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  • Every leader at some point in their career has witnessed pushback to change within an organization. But why the lack of buy-in?
  • With any change comes uncertainty, but this can be mitigated by leadership's ability to apply 'pushing' and 'pulling' management styles.
  • Successful transformation always requires internal buy-in, with leaders focused on encouraging everyone into backing the change effort.

Every leader at one point or another, has been subjected to the dreaded pushback to change. After hundreds of hours in strategy and implementation design, after the architecture of the communications plan, we’ve all been at the proverbial podium where the employees' body language indicated doubt. Post-presentation chatter reveals rumblings of frustration, questioning and resistance. Why the lack of buy-in?

With any organizational change comes uncertainty. Yet for all the logical arguments illustrated in town hall meetings, or aspirational speeches to rally support, there’s consistently a gap. The problem doesn’t primarily reside in these methodologies, but in leadership’s ability to effectively apply team pushing and pulling.

‘Pulling’ vs ‘pushing’ management styles

Pulling and pushing are management styles that seek the same end while using opposing approaches. One is “driving for outcomes” (push), while the other is “inspiring and motivating others” (pull).

When leaders want to create organizational buy-in, they can take one of two ways to get there. Telling people what to do, setting a deadline and holding others accountable are all examples of pushing.

Pulling involves expressing to employees that certain tasks are necessary, explaining the reason for it, seeking their input on how to best do it, how it benefits them, and asking whether they are willing to take it on.

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Researchers used push and pull data from more than 100,000 leaders and discovered that 76% of the leaders were judged as more proficient at pushing than pulling by their peers. Only 22% of the leaders were assessed as stronger at pulling, and only 2% were evaluated as equally good at both.

They also asked the people who rated those leaders (a total of over 1.6 million people) which skill was more meaningful for a leader to excel at enacting organizational change. The most significant factor was pulling (inspiring others), while pushing (driving for results) was the fifth most important factor.

Take a combined approach

While the research shows that most leaders may benefit from strengthening their capacity to inspire others, it also shows that leaders who were good at both pushing and pulling were the most effective.

Confidence that the organization will achieve its goals is poor when both push and pull are low. When push is strong and pull is weak, confidence that the company will achieve goals rises, but not as far. When pull is strong, employee confidence in the change rises to a significantly higher level.

While there is a trend for leaders to be less demanding and more compassionate toward individual employees – in effect, more pull and less push – this shouldn’t detract from a leader’s ability to push when necessary.

The skill to recognize when to employ which method, based on the change, the timing, and the people, is what makes an effective change leader.

When to employ push and/or pull management styles

Pushing employees is a powerful force that builds confidence that the company will achieve its goals. Pushing too hard can lead to discontent, yet it is necessary when pulling isn’t working. Pulling provides a deeper level of understanding and engagement to the change, with the leader’s energy and excitement for the goal being contagious.

The change itself will determine the balance. If the change requires new thinking and behaviours, a consistent pull strategy is most effective, with a strong push at key milestones. If the change is incremental yet urgent, a push strategy alone may be sufficient.

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But there are changes which aren’t that black and white and devising your own push and pull approach depends on context and timing. You’ll need to consider whether your team needs a strong push, a healthy pull or both.

For example, when facing passive resistance, a pull strategy can help foster a connection between the change and its impact on employees. It can also be an opportunity to build excitement, involvement and momentum through highlighting opportunities for creativity and autonomy.

Alternatively, when employees are making progress but continually stalling, extending deadlines, or creating reasons for underperformance when ample resources are available, a push strategy can reinforce urgency, eliminate overthinking and establish clear consequences for inaction.

However, if the team doesn’t have a full understanding of expectations and how to achieve them, doubling down on pushing may aggravate organizational attrition.

Good communication is vital

Whichever strategy combination you choose, engagement is key. Unlike traditional waterfall communications, where change initiatives are passed down through organizational layers, every key leader heading up the change must understand how to create their own push-pull strategy and how to effectively implement it.

This requires overcommunication – a process where leaders tailor their messages to the individual employee, in conjunction with using a variety of mediums.

Overcommunication doesn’t mean more meetings, more update emails or event committees. It does mean the bulk of the leader’s time is spent on communication, ensuring understanding and alignment.

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Whether one-on-one or one-on-group, the goal is to reinforce, reframe, motivate, connect and inject passion and excitement into the change effort.

When consistently communicated with confidence, clarity, and genuineness, coupled with repetitive reinforcement of the change objectives, employees can better come to terms with it. This requires time, dedication, and most importantly, a lot of listening and addressing of concerns and questions.

In the end, successful change requires internal buy-in, done by leaders and others in management pulling people into the idea through positive framing. However, there will be certain context and circumstances where you just might have to give them a tough, hard push.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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