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How to "Pushback"


By Stephen Northcutt
The organization I work for, The SANS Institute, has a unique cultural mechanism for communicating when two parties disagree, it is called pushing back. It works as a code word to help keep a conflict resolution process on track. The Office of Quality Improvement at the University of Wisconsin defines "conflict as a disagreement through which the parties involved perceive a threat to their needs, interests or concerns."[1] Successful conflict resolution occurs by listening to and providing opportunities to meet each side's needs, and adequately address their interests so that they are each satisfied with the outcome.[2]

According to the National Youth Violence Prevention website, most conflict resolution programs follow a series of steps that include (Crawford and Bodine 1996):[3]

  • Setting ground rules. Agree to work together and set rules such as no name-calling, blaming, yelling or interrupting.
  • Listening. Let each person describe their point of view without interruption. The point is to understand what a person wants and why they want it.
  • Finding common interests. Establish facts and issues that everyone can agree on and determine what is important to each person.
  • Brainstorming possible solutions to the problem. List all options without judging them or feeling that they must be carried out. Try to think of solutions where everyone gains something.
  • Discussing each person's view of the proposed solutions. Negotiate and try to reach a compromise that is acceptable to everyone involved.
  • Reaching an agreement. Each person should state his or her interpretation of the agreement. Try writing the agreement down and checking back at a later time to see how it is working.
Pushback begins as an established ground rule. All parties need to know about the word in advance. Define pushback to help communicate to another party that, "I hear you, I respect you, but I do not agree with something you are saying." By saying "I am pushing back," you are reminding the other party that you seek conflict resolution, not an argument. It is also a tool to help the other party remember to listen to your position.

According to The Conflict Resolution Network [4] there are 12 basic skills in conflict resolution:
  • Win/win approach
  • Creative response
  • Empathy
  • Appropriate assertiveness
  • Cooperative power
  • Managing emotions
  • Willingness to resolve
  • Mapping the conflict
  • Development of options
  • Introduction to negotiation
  • Introduction to mediation
  • Broadening perspectives
Pushback can help in each of the first seven skills. The use of that one little word can cover a lot of territory.


How not to use pushback

Pushing back is helpful in business, but cannot work if misused. At the end of the day, the decision maker makes the decision. Pushback is simply a tool to ask the other party to consider your position. If someone is acting in an argumentative or overly confrontational manner, that is not pushback and can't be called pushback. When you say, "I am pushing back," make sure you have control over your emotions and do not raise your voice. Do not send signals of catty or uncooperative behavior. Also, it must be used sparingly: if someone pushes back on every issue or even just on many issues, that person will be considered uncooperative.[5]


Try it!

I have been using pushback as a tool for seven years and I am thankful to have been introduced to it. Different perspectives and priorities happen in the workplace. Many times the result of different perspectives can be that two strong minded people work together to hash out an issue and create a result that is better than either of them would have come up with on their own. Diversity is a wonderful thing; it can help an organization avoid myopic thinking, and pushback can help diversity work. Try it!


1. July 13, 2007 http://www.ohrd.wisc.edu/onlinetraining/resolution/aboutwhatisit.htm
2. July 13, 2007 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict_resolution
3. July 13, 2007 http://www.safeyouth.org/scripts/teens/conflict.asp#res
4. July 13, 2007 http://www.crnhq.org/twelveskills.html
5. July 13, 2007 http://love.ivillage.com/fnf/fnfwork/0,,hzct-2,00.htmls