Task pushback: digging deeper as a manager

When you give someone a task and they push back, what do you do?

Well, task pushback is not inherently bad. After all, you don’t want ‘yes people’ reporting to you. 

But whether it’s appropriate or not comes down to the detail. Which is why, as a manager, it’s your job to dig deeper when someone pushes back on a task you’ve given them.

Here’s how to do it.

Timing is all: are they pushing back soon after you give them the task or are they doing it at the 11th hour?

There’s a big difference between the words ‘don’t’ and ‘didn’t.’

“I don’t have time” is a conversation-starter. “I didn’t have time” is an excuse.

It’s not ok to wait until the deadline has passed and then tell you there was no time. Or there were other priorities. Or any reason, actually.

But it can be acceptable to raise potential blockers well in advance of the deadline. That’s when it’s time to dig deeper.

When people say they don’t have time, it can mean many things – only one of which actually has something to do with time.

When someone says they don’t have time to do something, your next question should be: “Why don’t you have time?”

If they can’t be specific, it suggests they’re overwhelmed rather than overworked. The task is too much for their brain – there’s not enough headspace to go round

If they can be specific, it may be they’re overestimating the time the task will take because they don’t understand it. Or they may think your expectations are higher than they are.

These represent a mismatch in understanding: you’re talking about the same task, but you’re not really talking about the same task.

Outline the task again and be absolutely clear on everything, including your expectations. Doing this can allay the original concerns and help realign expectations on both sides.

After this, you should be in a position to move forwards.

Finally, maybe they really don’t have time to do the task. But if the task is important, they can relegate another task temporarily or permanently.

You could ask: “What’s the least important task you could move to free up time for this new task?”

Task pushback can be acceptable – if they’re taking ownership of the problem. Make sure you frame the conversation in this way.

When someone pushes back against a task, they may also be resisting ownership.

The difference is often how realistic and valid their criticism of the task is and how dedicated they are to finding an alternative solution.

General criticism of the task and deadline that is repeated without evidence can be a sign the person just wants to get the problem off their plate.

You should say things like: “If you’re not comfortable solving it that way, what could you do?”

If they work with you to find an alternative task that they are responsible for, this is a good sign they are taking ownership.

If they resist all attempts to frame the problem and come up with solutions, it’s likely they are resisting ownership – and the conversation needs to change to why that is.

Oftentimes people push back on tasks because they’re not confident they can do it effectively – and by the deadline.

Some people will resist a task rather than admit they are happy to do the task but require additional support.

If you overcome their objections and they continually raise new ones, this could well be what they’re thinking.

This lack of confidence can be in several areas: they don’t think they can do the task as quickly as you want, for example, or as well as you want. 

Or maybe they know they can do the task, but aren’t confident they can control the outcome.

Depending on the task, either you should provide the support needed or help them find a solution that better utilises their strengths to achieve the required outcome.

In some cases, people push back because they don’t want to do the task – they may find it too boring or complex.

The more comfortable someone is at work, the more they are likely to resist tasks that take them out of their comfort zone.

If you’ve reasonably tackled their concerns and the person continues to resist both the task and ownership of the problem it’s trying to solve, it may just be they don’t want to do it.

Everyone’s got parts of their job they’re not keen on, so in these cases you just need to reinforce the importance of the task, restate the deadline and be on hand to offer support.

Not digging deeper when people push back on tasks can kill productivity because key outcomes are not realised. What else kills productivity at work? Here are five hidden productivity killers you may not be aware of.