How to Push Back Professionally
Do you remember Kindergarten? Good times, right? Except for that kid that really got on your nerves. You’re not sure why, but he was always in your face. He would take your toys and crowd your space. He would talk while you tried to talk and even try to take your friends away. He would tattle to the teacher. What was his problem?
One day he took it just a bit too far and crossed the line with you. He got too close, took the wrong toy, bumped into you…who knows. But you just cracked and pushed him to the ground. As he sat there on the ground crying, you kind of felt pretty good that you stood up for yourself. Welcome to your first experience of pushing back (literally).
Fast forward two or three decades and you’re no longer in Kindergarten. Really, you’re not, despite how some of your co-workers may still act. You’re a program manager that is responsible for a portfolio of projects and business operations and you have done well for yourself.
Unfortunately, things still haven’t changed too much from Kindergarten. Your nemesis that you thought you left behind years ago is still with you. Sure, he looks different. He’s all grown up now. But he’s still the same kid. He’s crowding your space, stealing your resources, taking what doesn’t belong to him, making unreasonable demands and “tattling” to your boss.
You would just love to push that kid to the crowd like you did in Kindergarten! After careful consideration you came to the conclusion that it’s not the best course to take and you refrained. You may wonder how to manage this situation and push back.
What Does it Mean to Push Back?
Depending upon your background, how you were raised, religious inclinations, and myriads of other variables you may be programmed to go out of your way to help other people. If they ask you for something, you feel it’s your duty and obligation to deliver on their request. That may work in some situations, however, in business it becomes a very different animal. Their requests to you as a program manager may go directly opposite what would benefit you and your company. Or, people within your own organization may not be as forthcoming with information or completion of what needs to be done.
Pushing back means that you’re not going to fulfill every request or be satisfied with every answer you get. You can’t. People are going to be in your face as a program manager and try to take as much as they can (or give as little as they can) until you stand up and say “No, that won’t work for me”.
How to Be a Program Manager that Pushes Back Internally
One area where you need to learn to push back is within your own organization. The following are some scenarios and possible remedies to these situations if you encounter them.
1. Someone Hijacks Your Resource
Let’s say you work in a very specialized field and there are only so many skilled resources on your team to go around. You’ve been given one of these resources to finish a project that needs to be in place in order for your program to run smoothly. Someone pulls rank on you without telling you and checks in on your resource to see how things are progressing. “Sorry,’ she says. “I haven’t been working on your project for two days now. The VP of Sales needed this other project complete.”
What?? You heard her right. The VP of Sales came and took her away from your project without even asking you or telling you. She probably should have told you too, but that’s a different issue.
What are you going to do? The program manager that pushes back will have a conversation with the VP of Sales. You need to articulately state your position and the fact that you are responsible for getting this particular deliverable complete. This guy is smart. He understands your job. He understands your position and hopefully he will graciously give your resource back.
If not, then escalate. Because at the end of the day the question will come back to you from your boss about if you knew about this, why did you allow it to happen.
2. Someone Tells You Something Will Take Longer Than It Should
I’ve worked with resources in the past that had a standard answer for every request that was made of them. When asked how long something would take to complete, their standard answer was “40 hours”. Everything was 40 hours. I knew good and well that it would only take a fraction of that time once they put their mind to it, but they wanted you to believe otherwise.
What can you do to push back in this situation? Call their bluff. “C’mon…both you and I know that it only takes 8 hours to get this done. I’ll tell you what, let’s tack on another 8 hours just to be sure and let’s go ahead and knock this out”. Don’t settle for the first answer you get…especially if you don’t like it or it doesn’t suit your needs.
3. Someone Tries to Get You To Commit To Something You Can’t Deliver
Here’s one of my favorites. Someone comes to you and says “You own this, right?” What does that even mean? It means that they want to hand off their problem to you and not have to worry about it anymore. It means that silence is consent. It means “you’re it.” It means that if you don’t say something then their problem has instantly turned into your problem.
There’s nothing wrong with saying that you need to get a better understanding of exactly what is it that you are signing up to “own”. You need to get more information about what the problem is, who is involved, the current state, how close to completion, etc. There are professional delegators within any organization whose sole purpose in life is to deflect anything and everything that comes their way that even remotely looks like work. Don’t get hit by any of their shrapnel.
If you do decide that you can help out and “own this”, then make sure it is on your terms. It may be that you need additional resources to assist or the date may need to be extended longer than what was originally planned. There’s a lot of give and take that occurs within business relationships. You don’t mind helping out and giving as a program manager, but at the same time you can’t let others take advantage of you. You’re not accountable to them. You are accountable to your boss and up the corporate ladder from there.
Fortunately, the days of pushing people to the ground are way behind us. Everyone’s an adult now but we still need to know how to play nice together. Part of playing nice is to understand there are rules to follow and boundaries to work within. Understanding these dynamics will help you to push back…nicely, of course.
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