What do you bring to the table? — I can Push-back!

Push-back is a very common word in corporate circles but probably not as much used. It is defined as a negative or unfavorable reaction or response. However, push-back is not only about disagreeing but also, about open communication. It can emanate from a negative or unfavorable thought process but, it is important to re-look at the root-cause and effectively use it as a tool for standing up for self.

Figure 1: Dictionary meaning of Push-back

Push-back is an effective tool to voice one’s opinion with tact and professionalism without letting hierarchy / authority obstruct it thus, making it an effective time and effort management medium.

Lot of times, people struggle to identify a situation which requires pushing back. So, how does one identify if a situation calls for a push-back?

Figure 2: Summary of situations which may require a push-back

While everyone has a personal threshold for responding to situations, these can be broadly classified into three buckets — Time Work and Response to work.

Boundary-less work hours with no respect for personal time, for e.g. meeting gets over at 10 pm and one receives numerous comments on the document and is asked to address those by next morning meeting scheduled for 9/10 am. Another example — prioritizing and aligning calendars based on one’s personal commitments with no regards to other’s calendar which could lead to short notice to meetings, early morning or late evening meetings. Finally, continual ad hoc requests with turnaround of few hours etc.

On work front, one could end up in situations with arbitrary requests, for e.g. requested to do all the legwork and heavy lifting with no due credit or asked to share their screen despite not being the owner of the document etc.

Whereas, unreasonable responses could entail situations where, for e.g. one mentions in a meeting that the specific content is work in progress and still receives unsolicited critical and nonconstructive feedback or is requested to be party to biased decisions such as negative feedback for a team member even when one feels otherwise etc.

With help of above pointers, if one manages to identify a situation which deserves a push-back, why is it that one should push back? Will that not hamper relations in the long run? Lot of times, people struggle to push-back because they don’t see any merit in doing so or feel it won’t yield results.

Effective push backs are nothing but adding more thought to any response. In all the above examples, one’s natural inclination could be to agree with what is being said and end up with work that one doesn’t agree with and at a time one doesn’t feel is sensible. Hence, to avoid such situations, it is acceptable to stand up for self. It exhibits that one is trying to evaluate the current situation, the requirement and trying to make a reasonable argument either for it / against it. Usually, if the decision one arrives at, is against the ask, it is named as a push-back.

Push-back when done effectively, with reason, tact and right amount of times can lead to better productivity and a happier professional space. Also, it ensures that another person thinks through before making any request. Overall, it enhances one’s position, credibility and others see them as someone who evaluates a situation before committing.

However, there is another school of thought which mentions that one should jump at every opportunity and figure out how to do it later. But the idea of push-back is not to shun an opportunity but to classify the opportunities in the right basket and schedule it for right time.

Hence, effective push-back can lead to better management of priorities in a stipulated time frame with no disruption to existing commitments to client and other multiple stakeholders.

Figure 3. Professional credibility vs amount of push-back over a period

Finally, some useful tactics to push-back by revisiting the examples which deserve standing up for self. In the example with unreasonable hours, think about following — is the request urgent? Can we work with an interim version? Will the lack of time impact the output? If the answers to above questions were “No”, “No” and “Yes” then, push-back. If the request is urgent then, might be wise to check if meeting can be pushed or can someone be brought in to share the load.

One can articulate it the following way. “I understand that it will be good to have the document by early morning but, I need more time to address the comments meaningfully. Moreover, client doesn’t want an interim version. It is best that we take time and go back to them with a reasonable version”

This conversation could go two ways — push-back is accepted, or the person says something like “Why will it take time?” Then, one could probably lay out the specifics which helps to resolve any differences in understanding. While the person might be expecting it to be an hour’s effort, due to some gaps in communication / understanding, one could have assumed it to be a taller ask. In both cases, one emerges as the winner — either with more time or with lesser deliverable.

In case someone is requesting for an unreasonable meeting time for a non-urgent work then, response could be “Given this is not urgent, can we speak tomorrow? This time doesn’t work for me. Plus, I have some personal commitments to take care of”

Other examples could be: “I am happy to have this discussion right now, however, I think it is important to understand abc before we have this discussion. Why don’t we schedule this for day after tomorrow so that it gives me time to be better prepared for our discussion?”

To address unsolicited advice: “Thank you for your suggestions, will be happy to include them. However, this document was sent to us few hours back which didn’t give us enough time to address the suggestions you just mentioned.”

One might think that it is easier to push-back at some designations, or in some cultures. However, it is more about practice and standing up for self which should be suitable at any designation or in any culture. Organisations should not view effective push-back with contempt as it can help the entire organisation be more productive by streamlining priorities.

Management Consultant