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CEO Insider

Why We Must Pull—Not Push—Our People Through Organizational Change

Al Comeaux

Imagine for a minute that we stumble upon a game of tug-of-war. On one side are five people; they’re from our organization’s biggest competitor. On the other side is our leader—all alone. The boss is getting pulled pretty hard.

What are we going to do? Are we going to stand there and let our leader and our organization be humiliated by the competition, or are we going to run over and grab the rope behind the boss?

Most of us are going to grab the rope, of course, and we’re likely to do so with great purpose and intent. It would be our idea. We’d probably even yell to coworkers to come join the effort.

Now picture a different tug-of-war scene. Five people hold the rope for our competitor. The boss and other executives are picking the people who will pull for our organization, and they then stand nearby and offer constructive criticism during the battle. If we were picked, how would we feel then? Anything like the other scene? We would want to win, of course, but mostly, we’d want to not lose.

So, which company leader do we need to be? The boss in the first scenario who inspires us to pull with her—who gets people to want to join the fight—or the boss in the second scenario who makes us pull?

After more than 20 years of leading change efforts while researching what separates the winners and losers at change, I know that when we’re leading a change effort, we need as many people pulling alongside us as we can get. We want to be that first boss.

Pull for Successful Change

There are plenty of times when bosses need to push and when pushing is really the only way of managing some situations. Deadline-driven work and immediate safety and security issues require push. Crisis situations usually call for push leadership; there’s usually no time in a crisis to inspire people to do things. We all just have to do them.

But for successful, enduring change initiatives, my research and experience are clear: we have to pull. Pulling is about inspiring people to follow us, engaging people’s emotions and senses, and touching people’s feelings. It’s about making something our people’s idea—at least in part. We can’t expect enduring change—change that’s owned by the whole group—to come out of something that’s forced on people and done for distant reasons.

Pulling creates something within. It’s about getting our people primed for change rather than micromanaging how it’s executed.

Reorient From Push to Pull

Ask a child what a boss does, and they’ll say, “The boss tells other people what to do.”

We’re hardwired from a young age to believe the default leadership style is to push. It’s also the most obvious and memorable approach. We remember when our boss tells us to do something; it’s not always pleasant, it’s not our idea, and it doesn’t inspire the creative juices.

But pushing isn’t the only way to lead, and for change initiatives, it’s not the most effective approach. It might be tough to change our mindsets, but if we want to create lasting change, we must. We must pull alongside our people.

To shift from push to pull, we need to reorient our leadership style. It’s about becoming vulnerable enough to humbly ask our people to come with us on the change journey. It’s about inspiring people to join the effort. It’s about reaching their emotions, their competitive natures and their best selves.

Pull Even When There’s No Time for It

Pulling people toward change—making it a positive, inspiring experience—is hard, in part, because we often don’t start change initiatives until we’re already behind the curve. Maybe our competitor has cut into our market share using business model innovation. Or a new technology is disrupting our industry.

By the time it’s time to change, we want to jump into the change. We’re naturally thinking, “We need to change fast. How do we get our people to change?” “Get” our people to change…that’s thinking in terms of pushing change, not pulling.

It might not feel like we have the time to inspire our employees, but we actually don’t have the time to push. When we push, we get pushback from our people. They may smile and nod as we tell them how they’re going to change, but because it wasn’t their idea—and we aren’t pulling with them—they naturally go back to their old ways pretty quickly. And now we’re further behind the change curve. We’ve wasted more precious time.

Pushing is a mess. It’s one reason why two-thirds of change efforts fail.

Make Pulling Our Permanent Mindset

In all my years studying and leading change, I haven’t found a single example of successful, enduring change that happened through pushing. They all happened when some sort of pull was involved.

Change is like a game of tug-of-war with our competitors and naysayers on one side, and us on the other. It’s the same with leadership every day. So, what will we do? Will we inspire our people to pull on our side of the rope, or will we push them?

For more advice on leading a company change initiative, you can find Change (the) Management on Amazon.

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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Insider - Why We Must Pull—Not Push—Our People Through Organizational Change
Al Comeaux
Al Comeaux, author of Change (the) Management: Why We as Leaders Must Change for the Change to Last, a former executive at Travelocity, GE and American Airlines, is a decorated corporate pioneer and global authority on change from inside organizations. His career championing change as a senior leader at uber-disruptive dot-coms as well as established, world-renowned companies—and his 20-year journey researching why so many change efforts fail and what’s needed for success—make him one of the world’s most forward thinkers on what leaders must do—and how they must think—to succeed at change. In 2019, Al Comeaux founded Primed for Change, a disruptive new project created to prepare leaders to take organizations successfully through change. Al and his family live in Ft. Worth, TX, where he is deeply involved in his family, faith, and community. Al Comeaux is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on LinkedIn.