The 8 step guide to pushing back

The bronco was pushing back
If you are being ridden too hard, you need to learn how to buck them off

The working world is full of people trying to take your time and add tasks to your already full workload.

The standard 40 hours in your contract are already assaulted by unscheduled meetings and administrative overhead that stop you from accomplishing what you are meant to be doing within that time, so you stay a little later.

You have a problem saying no and the work piles up, slowly but surely. If you don’t go “over and above”, you won’t get that promotion or the recognition you deserve.

Or will you?

Why pushing back makes you more effective

I argue that pushing back on people who try to load you with excess work can actually make you appear more competent.

This is because:

  • If you understand (and set) limits, you can prioritise your effort to ensure you get your core tasks done to a good level of quality
  • When you limit the amount of additional work you take on, you have time to focus on leading, coaching and mentoring your team, which is actually one of your core duties!
  • When you set boundaries, you do good work, most of the time, rather than getting things out the door as fast as you can, which is riddled with errors and omissions
  • Your team will thank you for limiting their workload, because you aren’t too scared to push back on your own boss.

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How to start pushing back effectively

Pushing back is an art form that can’t be undertaken with reckless abandon. The leader who pushes back on everything will appear not to be a “team player”. The leader that takes on too much will put pressure on themselves and their team until they eventually break under the strain.

The setup

1. Do a good job

First, you need to prove that you can do a good job, so this should be your first focus. If you’re early into your role, you need to set a standard early that you are good at your job. This will give you the credibility to do what’s needed later. If you aren’t regarded as a good worker, you will appear to be someone who doesn’t want to work hard.

2. Be agreeable

You should take on additional work where it makes sense to do so. Take on small tasks that don’t cause much extra effort. Say “yes” to helping out when you don’t really need to. Lend a hand to somebody in need. This shows that you are a reasonable person and a “team player”.

The execution

3. Push back the right way

Don’t yell, don’t shout. Just say calmly that you can’t take on that extra task right now because your team is swamped. Try not to become emotional. If you do, people will just say that “you were having a bad day”. They may consider you to be unstable, which undermines your credibility.

4. Explain the reasons why

It’s not usually good enough to say that you just don’t want to do extra work. “It’s not my job” doesn’t usually garner a good response either. If you can give reasonable answers as to why you and your team is not able to squeeze in that extra work, this can go a long way into exposing the source of the issue.

Before too long, your stakeholders will learn that they need to prioritise their effort, rather than trying to get you to do everything at once.

You can’t do everything, so be sure to choose the right things.

5. Stick to your guns, unless you are forced to give in

When pushing back, you really need to mean it. Your objective is to train your stakeholders so that they learn that there are limits to what they can burden you and your team with.

This might even mean taking a hit on your performance review or being shouted at. You need to show that you are serious, at least until the situation becomes untenable. Sometimes, you will need to give in or risk losing your job or a similar fate – this is unfortunate, but at least you can feel good knowing that you tried.

If you keep trying and your stakeholders refuse to learn, you might need to rethink your position in that organisation. Sometimes a culture of taking on extra work is difficult to change. You might enjoy building your career more elsewhere.

The aftermath

6. Don’t crow about it

If you successfully push back and avoid additional workload, don’t make a big deal of it. Don’t act (to anybody) like you’ve scored a point or “won” something. You’ve just done your job as a leader, nothing more and nothing less.

7. Continue to do a good job

When you push back, make sure the work you have agreed to do continues to be completed in a timely manner, to a good level of quality. The last thing you want is to push back and then to be seen to be “slacking off”. This will undermine your credibility.

8. Continue to be agreeable

Continue to help where you can, take on small additional tasks or even larger ones where it provides the most benefit. You might even say “my team has finished that work early, so we can fit in that other task that you wanted”. This will still make you appear to be a team player whilst having standards which you want to uphold.

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Want to learn more? Get the guide: “Managing Up – the Power of Pushback”

You won’t always successfully push back – sometimes you will be forced to take on additional responsibility and more work. But the sooner you learn to push back, the greater the chance you can safeguard your team and yourself from being stuck in the 12 hour day rinse cycle of the corporate world. 

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