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May 27, 2022

Why great managers both 'push' and 'pull' their teams

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Nov. 7, 2022.

    Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Joseph Folkman, president of leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman, explains how managers can leverage two opposing leadership behaviors to reach their end goals.

    Is it better to 'push' or 'pull' employees?

    In his research, Folkman and his colleague Jack Zenger identified two leadership behaviors directed at the same end goal that rely on opposite approaches. They call one behavior "driving for results," or pushing, and the other "inspiring and motivating others," or pulling.

    According to Folkman, "[p]ushinginvolves giving direction, telling people what to do, establishing a deadline, and generally holding others accountable. It is on the 'authoritarian' end of the leadership style spectrum."

    Meanwhile, pulling "involves describing to a direct report a needed task, explaining the underlying reason for it, seeing what ideas they might have on how to best accomplish it, and asking if they are willing to take it on," Folkman writes. "The leader can further enhance the pull by describing what this project might do for the employee's development. Ideally, the leader's energy and enthusiasm for the goal are contagious."

    For their research, Folkman and Zenger surveyed more than 100,000 leaders using a 360-degree assessment. They measured both push and pull and found that 76% of leaders were rated as more competent at pushing than pulling, according to their peers. Just 22% of the leaders surveyed were rated as more competent at pulling, and only 2% were rated as equally competent on both skills.

    In addition, they asked the roughly 1.6 million people rating their leaders which skill was more important for a leader's success in their current job. Notably, pulling, or inspiring others, was rated as the most important, and pushing, or driving for results, was ranked as fifth most important.

    "Leaders who are willing to try hard with pulling but ultimately resort to a strong push provide a good example of the power of the combination of these two approaches. Pushing too hard can erode satisfaction but, at times, is needed, especially when pulling just doesn't work," Folkman writes.

    Identify wants and needs

    While Folkman and Zenger's data clearly suggests that most leaders stand to benefit from improving their ability to inspire and pull team members, it also "revealed that leaders who were effective at both pushing and pulling were ultimately the most effective," Folkman writes.

    In an analysis of 360-degree assessment data on 3,875 leaders in the pandemic, direct reports rated their confidence that their organization would meet its goals, their satisfaction with their organization as a place to work, and their leader's effectiveness on both pushing and pulling. Then, Folkman and Zenger ranked leaders' data on pushing and pulling into top and bottom quartiles and identified low (bottom quartile) and high (top quartile) leaders.

    When leaders fall in the bottom quartile for both push and pull, both the confidence and satisfaction of their direct reports are low. However, when push is high and pull is low, direct reports' confidence and satisfaction typically increases.

    When a leader's pull is high, satisfaction increases to a level far above confidence. When both were high, Folkman and Zenger measured the most significant increase.

    Combining push and pull

    In recent years, there has been a push for leaders to become less demanding and more empathetic toward employees.

    "More pull, less push seemed to be what's needed to retain talented employees," Folkman noted. "While I agree with this sentiment, this data also offers a clear warning. Your efforts to increase empathy shouldn't diminish your ability to, on occasion, push when needed," he added. "As our data shows that it can be a strong force that builds confidence."

    Ultimately, Folkman writes, "your influence as a leader comes from your ability to know when to use which approach, depending on the task, the timing, and the people."

    The next time you are trying to achieve a goal, Folkman says you must "consider whether your team really needs a good push, a big pull, or perhaps both." (Folkman, Harvard Business Review, 5/24)

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