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How Trusted Leaders mix together both Pull and Push leadership

For many leaders, managing trust in their teams is challenging because there are three different forces at play.

3-Types-of-Forces-that-Impact-Trust (2)-1

As you can see in the Three Oppositional Supporting and Supporting Trust Forces model above, there are:

Micro trust forces - which are within ourselves

Meso trust forces - which are between team members

Macro trust forces - which reside outside of our team.

Leaders need to navigate forces outside their team, team dynamics and their own psychology to ensure trust levels are high. It's important to understand these main dynamics so we can mitigate the damage they can potentially caused when mismanaged. It's also important to know what you can control and what you can't.

When these forces are supportive our employees or peers work with us on a vision, share information or help us out. When they are opposing forces people work around us, sabotage our plans behind our backs or refuse to move forward on a proposal. 

We can modify these forces through how we push or pull.

Managing Team Forces

In this article, I want to focus on teams at the meso level. As a leader, we have more control at the team level as our behaviours and interactions are modelled by the team itself. If we want to be able to build trust in our teams, we need to master when to push our people and when to pull them in.

Push leadership is more old-school. It's about telling people what to do. It's useful when tasks need tasks to be done quickly. Use it too much or in a self-centred way and it breaks trust. Pushing too hard sends people into what I call the Anxiety Zone, a place where accountability is high, but safety is low.

Pull leadership is more about autonomy and collaboration. It builds trust. It can be applied for big ideas that need conversation, inspiration and exploration. It's about the leader's energy and excitement for the future that becomes a strong anchor for direct reports on why their work matters. If you only focus on pull, you end up creating an Abatement Zone, a place where safety is high, but little action occurs.

For years, leadership experts have argued over which style is better - push, pull or even both.

A new research study has pointed to the importance of both leadership styles and knowing how to integrate them is an important skill for both managers and leaders.

According to Joseph Folkman, the President of Zenger Folkman, his organisation gathered data from over 100,000 leaders through their 360-degree assessments.

They filtered the results through either push ("driving for results") and pull ("inspiring and motivating others") leadership. Their data showed that 76% of the leaders were rated by their peers as more competent at pushing than pulling. Only 22% of the leaders were rated as better at pulling, and a mere 2% were rated as equal on both skills.

Furthermore, pulling (inspiring others) was rated as the most important by 1.6 million direct reports, while pushing (driving for results) was rated as fifth most important.

When they ranked leaders’ data on pushing and pulling into quartiles and identified those who were low (bottom quartile) and high (top quartile). They discovered that when:

  • Both push and pull are in the bottom quartile, both confidence and satisfaction of direct reports with their boss are low.
  • Push is high and pull is low, confidence and satisfaction both increase with a leader.
  • Pull is high, satisfaction increases to a level substantially above confidence. When both are high, then you see the most significant improvement. 

Depending on the context, what seems to work well are leaders who spend time pulling people in, but then switch to a strong push when needed. An example would be spending time over a few weeks consulting with those about a proposed change - generating ideas and buy-in.  Then, if a couple of people back track on the idea, it's time to make a strong push and roll-out the concept (even if that means pushing people out of their jobs).

Pushing and Pulling our People

In my book, Trusted to Thrive, the three main practices that I unpack are fostering safety, creating connection and stepping into a meaningful future. These factors are all integrated - you can't have one without the other. They are also critical for being able to set up the right conditions to switch more easily between push and pull.

The Integrated Trust Building System (colour)100

Let's look at how you do this:

1. Fostering safety - This is where you reduce interpersonal risk through creating a team culture of learning and supporting one another. These are all pull techniques. Yet, you can't create safety without expecting accountability and running meetings/one-on-ones where you clarify directives and expectations (push techniques).

2. Creating connection - This is the place where we connect the dots for people. Helping employees see how they are connected to one another and how their work matters to everyone around them. This is an important pull technique, but it won't work without push techniques.  That is ensuring everyone can visibly see the goals, priorities and the work being done and the progress made during meetings or one-on-ones.

3. Stepping into a meaningful future - This is where a leader clearly communicates a compelling future and career opportunities that people can work towards. It's the ultimate pull technique. Yet, it can't be done in isolation. It requires confronting the present and how people are performing to push them towards closing the gap. This also requires accountability and visibility of goals and priorities.

Since COVID, employees have been seeking caring workplaces - less demanding and more empathetic. They are more than willing to leave and find employment elsewhere if they feel that their leaders don't share the same ethos.

Yet, as I mentioned in last week's article there needs to be a balance between psychological safety and accountability with leaders knowing when to push and pull their people depending upon the context, timing and individual personalities. It truly is key to achieving results.


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