How to Push Back Diplomatically: The Unwritten Rules

You're at a meeting and a leader more senior than you is proposing a timeline for an important upcoming project. When he asks if anyone has objections to his plan, you aren't sure what to do.

You definitely have some objections. The timeline he's suggesting is next to impossible for your group.


But he is much higher in the corporate hierarchy than you are. Everyone else is saying they can make his plan happen. You don't want to seem like the only person who isn't getting board.

So should you speak up or not?

This is one of the trickiest situations you can face as a leader. And that's why I wanted to address it as part of my series of articles on the unwritten rules of work.

Speaking Up Vs. Being a Team Player

In a scenario like the one I described above, some of your key values and priorities might feel at odds with each other.

You've probably risen as far in your organization as you have based at least in part on your ability to show respect and be a team player.

But as you advance as a leader, there's also a growing expectation that you will be willing to speak hard truths for the good of the business, even when there's some risk to you in doing so.

There's no definitive answer on when to take a stand and when to get on board with a plan despite your concerns.

But I've seen through my work as an executive coach that most people worry more about the consequences of speaking up than those of staying silent.

The Risks of Staying Silent

Not sharing your objections can feel like the safer option. But it has its own set of risks for your personal brand as a leader. If you never push back, others will start asking questions like these about your leadership:

  • Can I trust you to tell me what I need to know even if it's going to be hard for you to do it?

  • Are you a thought leader or a follower? Do you just go along with the crowd?

  • Will you do the right thing even when it isn't easy?

  • Are you afraid of conflict? Do you know how to handle disagreement?

Take a moment now to reflect on whether you avoid pushing back. It can also be helpful to ask for feedback from peers you trust. What they notice about your behavior might surprise you!

How to Disagree and Be Heard

If you'd like to become more comfortable voicing disagreement, the first step is often simply to remind yourself that this is part of your job. In my article about the unwritten rules about speaking up at meetings, I talked about the fact that you're "at the table" because you have insights to offer, even if you're the most junior person in the room. 

The same thing is true when it comes to pushing back. You're expected to use your experience and expertise to keep the business headed in the right direction, even when that means sounding alarm bells about what you believe is an impending mistake.

Remember, too, that disagreeing doesn't have to mean being disagreeable. You can still show that you are respectful and a team player even as you voice objections. Here are a few tips on how to do that.

  • Pay attention to what pushing back looks like in the culture of your office. What do you notice about how other successful leaders handle disagreement?

  • Frame your disagreement to show that it's rooted in what's best for the organization and that it isn't personal.

  • Communicate your objections in a way that shows you are listening to the opposing camp, that you respect them and that you are willing to work with them to find a solution.

Some leaders feel that it's more diplomatic to push back behind the scenes instead of in the middle of the meeting. But this tactic has its own risks.

If you're always "working the back channel," you could be seen as playing politics or pursuing your own agenda. And if others don't see you taking a stand, they could still assume that you're a pushover.

Taking a stand when you disagree is no guarantee that you will get others to change course. But by confidently and diplomatically raising your concerns, you are still building your brand as a leader.

You can find more strategies like these in "Communicating With Impact," one of the titles in my Leadership EDGE Series.℠

And if you'd like to read more on the unwritten rules of work, check out the past installments in this series: 

If you have questions about other unwritten rules at work, please don't hesitate to drop me a note. I may answer your question in an upcoming blog article.