The Value of Pushing Back At Work


Good employees look out for their company and their boss, even if it means standing up to the boss.

Good bosses don’t want “yes” people to lazily agree with all of their decisions. Sure, everyone likes to feel validated and hear that their ideas are wonderful, excellent, and stupendous, but a good boss knows to be wary of “suck-ups.”

Why? Because if your objective is to make your boss successful, you won’t unjustifiably flatter her, agree with her, or just go along with her because of her role. You will take the risk of pushing back at work when necessary.

Good employees look out for their company and their boss, even if it means standing up to the boss. The Value of Pushing Back With Respect Share on X

When to Push Back At Work

If you strongly disagree with an approach, a task, or anything related to achieving the company’s or your own mission, tell your boss how you feel directly. 

If you have information that differs from the boss’s position or point of view that will genuinely move the company forward, you have to talk to her. 

It’s like seeing someone with spinach in between their teeth right before they stand up to give a presentation. You support them far better by telling them about the spinach in a quiet one-on-one BEFORE they stand up in front of everyone than by pretending everything’s okay.

At the same time, no one should hinder you from doing your job, including your boss, so if agreeing with the supervisor hinders you in any way, you owe it to yourself to speak up. 

I know it takes confidence and courage, but it’s better to be uncomfortable and strong than quiet. The short time it takes to address an issue is better than the long time you suffer putting up with it. 

You can still support your boss, be loyal and respectful, and try to make her life easier, but in an honest, confident manner, you have to express your beliefs. 

How to Politely Push Back At Work

To push back does not mean to argue with no merit or to be a troublemaker or rabble-rouser for no reason. It means to pleasantly but assertively question and present your viewpoint and supporting facts. 

The goal is to understand what your boss is saying, and then explain how and why you see it differently. 

As one CEO put it, “Just speak up as if you’ve never been shushed. Have a meaningful discussion. Be reasonable with a smile.” 

Start by choosing your words carefully. 

The best way to choose your words when you need to push back is to clearly know what you need to say and then say it to the other person the way you would like it said to you. 

Give valid reasons for your recommendations. Have knowledge and information that out-details and out-facts them. Clearly put your evaluation, opinion, and options out there with candor, directness, objectivity, and respect. 

Use an even tone of voice, square your shoulders, look ’em in the eye, and give a comfortable smile. 

Negative response need not be given in a negative way: “You were right on target when you said . . . , and to follow your lead, I did some research on my own that you’ll want to see as we define and refine our position,” will be better received than, “You’re wrong. I don’t know how you came up with that, but I found out the truth, and it’s totally different from what you said. The only way it can go is . . . . It’s stupid any other way.”

Before firing back your opinion (even with facts), take the time to pause. Consider if you were in that person’s shoes how you would like to be talked to, and then weigh your words and harness your tone of voice, facial expression, and comportment.

Always avoid any fist pounding or shouting, And please, do not ever insinuate, insult, or peck away at a person’s character or morals. Doing so is being critical and judgmental, not disagreeing with valid reasoning. 

Say No When Necessary, But Don’t Take No

Be able to push back and say “no,” but don’t take “no” for the answer. 

Understand that “no” is the standard answer or response from peers, bosses, and subordinates to test or challenge you, sometimes out of laziness, sometimes for reasons of budget and time.

“No” is a complete sentence, but it isn’t a complete answer. Don’t take it as a matter of course if you believe that it could, or should, be otherwise.

“No” doesn’t always mean “no,” nor no way, never ever, or over my dead body. More often than not it means, “maybe” or “I’m not sure.” Unless you come back and fight for it, your opponents figured they were right.

So take “no” and keep going on. If you ask for something and are told “no,” accept it; then ask for something different:

“Can you donate $500 million to the new college of business building?”


“Can you buy two tickets for the fundraiser next month?”

“Well, sure.”

The above example is not ‘apples and apples,’ I know. Still, taking “no” is acceptable for some people, but it doesn’t have to be for you. 

If you get “no,” figure the person you are speaking with just didn’t understand and you have to explain another way.

My point is to keep trying, without being tedious, without just giving up. Ask 3 (or 13) times and in 3 (or 13) different ways before you even consider giving up. 

When people learn that you only redouble your efforts when you are told “no,” you will get them trained to just saying “yes” right away.

Pushing Back Isn’t A Full-Time Sport, But Be A Pro At It

Don’t battle with the boss on e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Focus on what really matters in achieving the group’s goals. 

Anything illegal or immoral or that inhibits you from doing your job and achieving the company mission is especially fair game to push back on. 

But don’t get carried away with every bothersome thing. Pick only the battles worth fighting. 

But do fight them and don’t fold when the person challenges you. Instead of telling your boss what he wants to hear, stick with the facts as you see them. He may not choose to follow your advice, but you will have done the right thing for the company and for yourself.

If you could use encouragement or guidance in pushing back or with any other sticky situation at work, contact me to discuss coaching, or if you have a group of emerging leaders, for a speaking engagement.

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