You Push, They Push Back

When things aren’t going in the right direction, how do you approach your team to get better results?

Do you talk more, push harder, change managers, insist louder, impose longer hours and harder standards? That’s the path of force, of pushing. It’s also the one that’s most intuitive.

Or, do you harness your internal power and recast the vision, enroll the team in a new approach, inspire them to recruit their peers and to find and remove friction? That’s the positive expression of power. And when done authentically, it pulls. 

We Push When We Feel Powerless

Despite being the CEO or leader, you probably don’t always feel powerful. In fact, much of the time you may feel impotent. There are times when it seems like no matter what you do, nothing changes for the better. Sales, customer acquisition, retention, product, or fundraising—nothing is going the right way. It’s frustrating. When that happens, the impulse is to do more. Push harder. Threaten. Entice. Manipulate. Extend the workday. Change the incentives. Demand more.

Surprisingly, it rarely works. 

Personal Power Plus Authority

Unfortunately, forcing –or pushing—almost never works unless you are a musclebound bruiser of a bouncer, or a threatening mobster with a gun. When used by leaders in organizations, people respond to being pushed in the way that comes just as naturally: they resist.  

As a leader, your use of force is compounded by the inherent power of your authority. You can fire, hire, promote, amplify, diminish, and compound. And having all that power –the ontological and the structural—seems like it ought to make things happen.

In fact, it does.  

You can walk into a space and bring it to life!
But you can also open your mouth and destroy morale!

This is especially true in startups. The team is comparatively small, and the CEO is the star around which all the employees revolve.If the star shines, people feel warm. If it sets, they are cold. And when it storms, everyone ducks for cover. 

You Push, They Push Back

So, why can’t you get your team to produce the result? Because you are using force. You are pushing not pulling.

We know from physics that force can accelerate an object into a specific direction. Think of the force of a baseball bat against ball. The ball’s trajectory changes upon the force of the bat. That force transmits energy into the ball as acceleration. Home run.  

But the baseball’s acceleration was caused by two forces—that of the bat and that of the baseball against the bat!

People are similar to baseballs when they meet force. They too will push back, just like the speeding baseball pushes against the bat.

But baseballs and humans also differ. When you hit a baseball, you can expect predictable behavior from the ball. The geometry of 3-dimensional space dictates fixed potential outcomes. If you hit a rotating ball in the right location with the correct amount of force, the ball will redirect in a predictable way.

Like the baseball, we will push back when we feel forced. But we won’t push back in a predictable way. 

More force probably will produce some kind of change–but not the change you want— except in the very short term.

The natural human response to anything that looks or feels like force—especially if it includes changing anything in our behavior—is to push back. If you think I’m wrong, just consider how half of the US reacted when told to wear seatbelts in 1984.

As soon as anything pushes against people’s current trajectory, they resist. It doesn’t matter whether it’s seatbelt laws or face mask rules or bosses telling them to sell harder. Force backfires because human beings, unlike baseballs, resist unpredictably.

You can increase results when you reduce friction. But force doesn’t reduce friction, it adds it—in the form of resistance. People may work less, start job-hunting, complain, feel anxious, cheat or attack. All friction.

Indeed, you have a result—but it’s the wrong one. 

An Abundance of Power, Used Irresponsibly

Most Founders and CEOs start out with tremendous power. I don’t mean structural power—the kind you get from being the boss. I mean ontological power. The persuasive power of their being. And when that power is harnessed appropriately, it’s magical. 

It’s the phenomenon that allows a sloppily dressed, unshorn 25-year-old in shorts to enthrall an audience with the possibility of a new currency. When Sam Bankman-Fried painted the picture of billions in wealth spread throughout the world to do good, he used his power. There was no pushing. The investment dollars flew in, as though magnetically pulled. He didn’t need to push anyone to invest –instead, he used his power to create an irresistible pull.

Almost every person has extraordinary power, but only a few know how to use it responsibly.

Watch a pouting teenager sit at a family meal and suck all the aliveness out of the room. People are uncomfortable. They eat quickly and ask to be excused. That’s the same exertion of power, but used irresponsibly.

We ALL know how to do that. But once we grow up, we typically feel less unabashed about grabbing the attention and ruining other’s meals. It seems crass in a 35-year-old. It seems typical in a 14-year-old. 

The Pull of Powerful Inspiration

The irresponsible use of power is easy.

Leaders who can harness their power responsibly, to pull, are the greatest catalysts. And that is within you. But it takes commitment and focus.

Notice when you are shifting into overdrive and about to start pushing. When that feeling of insistence swoops in, you have entered the mode of force.

What you need is a strategy to persuade. To create a huge possibility that compels people to act. That is power that pulls. It starts with empathy, listening, curiosity and enrollment. People will step into a compelling vision, and energetically act. But they won’t do it if you push. The trick is to create that space of possibility rather than the pressure of force.

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