Push or Pull - what influencing technique should we use?

See also Desmond Harney’s article in Journal 78, Autumn 2021: Optimising Persuasive Impact: Pull AND Push – but Pull first!

The days of the authoritarian boss are fading fast and instead contemporary leaders and business people are increasingly recognising that they cannot simply tell others what to do.

As tempting as it may seem to use good, old-fashioned authority as the main tool of influencing, other skills are now required by the modern leader. They understand that in order to gain commitment to their plans and ideas they must use an increasing array of other influencing skills.

Influencing* here is defined as the ability to affect others’ attitudes, beliefs and behaviours without using force or formal authority.

Influencing is essentially an interpersonal and communication skill that largely depends on your ability to interact with others in a way that appeals to them, to gain their attention and commitment.

This might sound as though assertiveness in our leaders has had its day but this would be misleading. It is the ability to be able to know when to PUSH (assert), and when to PULL (appeal) which is valuable. In other words, when to PUSH as well as how to PULL is still important.

So, what specifically is meant by PUSH and PULL? According to Professor Fiona Dent of Ashridge Business School, both PUSH and PULL consists of 2 core influencing styles, as shown in the chart below:

Directive (PUSH) Collaborative (PULL) Persuasive reasoning (PUSH) Visionary (PULL)

This is an ‘I’-driven style where the influencer asserts their own views and ideas and expects others to follow. This style is most appropriate when:

  • You are an expert.
  • You require very speedy action.
  • You are working with new or inexperienced staff.
  • It is a safety, security or time deadline issue.
  • When used ineffectively, your colleagues may judge you to be a bit of a ‘bull in a china shop’.

This is a team-oriented style where the influencer aims to involve others who will offer views and ideas about the issue. This style is most appropriate when:

  • You require commitment from others.
  • You want innovative ideas from others.
  • Your issue has no clear answer.
  • If this style is overused or used ineffectively you may be regarded as ‘wishy-washy’.

This is an issue-driven style where the influencer wants others to buy into their ideas by presenting them in an even-handed, logical, rational and objective way. This is most appropriate when:

  • Your credibility with others and knowledge about the topic is high.
  • You need to get buy-in to an unpopular decision.
  • There is a ‘best’ answer and you’ve done the research to prove it.
  • Overuse or inappropriate use and you may be regarded as a‘tough guy’.

This is a style where you have to tap into others’ emotions, engage their imagination and help them visualise what could be. This style is most effective when:

  • You are at the beginning of a complex change process.
  • You wish to gain people’s attention and whet their appetite for future debate.
  • Innovative thinking is required.
  • Used ineffectively or overused, so other people may regard you as egocentric or idealistic.

To understand when to use each style we need to understand the relationship context of influencing in business.

According to Professor Dent, there are four categories of important stakeholders we all influence on a day-to-day basis: Clients, Colleagues, Bosses and Suppliers. And, of course, each needs to be dealt with slightly differently depending on the nature of your relationship.

Push me pull you
Push me pull you

In addition to this, Ashridge have also identified two additional issues which increasingly impact our ability to influence: cross-cultural factors and matrix organisational structures.

Again, this should be no surprise to those who work for large organisations as employees are becoming more international and the teams they work for more globally dispersed.

A significant number of leaders within multi-national organisations are now having to manage remote teams across different time-zones, which provides its own additional influencing challenges.
Dr. Dolittle’s Pushmepullyou seems the right way to go. But which way IS that?

So, with this in mind – what is the best approach?

Well, there is some research that suggests that a combination of PUSH and PULL is needed but there are clear preferences.

Further, a recent survey showed the Collaborative style as being the most popular in organisations and the Directive style the least.

One could argue that this is a backlash to the authoritarian boss and I think that is a fair point. But I also believe that the Collaborative style is most suited to the cultural, geographical and structural challenges that organisations now face. One thing is clear though, with the world becoming more global and complex – the modern leader needs more versatile than ever.

* Source: The Influencing Style Preference Inventory1 by Dent & Brent, Ashridge Business School, 2009.