Push vs. Pull Cultures

by Sandy Nelson on September 17, 2012

Think about it this way—today’s creative economy calls for push, not pull, cultures.

In a push culture, innovation, elevated performance, value-additive change, excellence in customer experience and relationships are driven from the bottom up. Push cultures have little tolerance for players who fail to consistently raise the bar or whose egos lead them to place personal agendas and internal competition ahead of co-generative collaboration. In push cultures, senior executives are continuously pushed to ‘up their game’ and that of the enterprise or team to stay ahead of the ambition, drive, creativity and aspirations of front-line team members.

Being profitable is simply not enough in push cultures. Players are obsessed with, and deeply committed to, thriving in a way that leaves nothing on the table. They are all in, and will accept nothing less from leadership.

On the other hand, pull cultures represent those rapidly ossifying legacy cultures where organizational leaders still have the mindset that ideas and innovation, discipline in execution, enforcing standards of behavior and levels of contribution, as well as overall performance, must be driven from the top.

In pull cultures, leadership is often frustrated by the failure of their talent and teams to “get it” and step up to the plate in ways that meet expectations. Acknowledging the need for, and sincerely committed to, change, the leadership team spends countless hours in efforts designed to pull the company or team forward.

To be fair, for the large part, pull cultures dominated the business landscape through much of history. Only recently, relatively speaking, as economic restructuring accelerated and broadened the ongoing evolution from a closed, production-efficiency-driven to an open, creativity-driven competitive model has it become essential to build, steward and sustain pull cultures.

The most urgent need for building pull cultures and teams may well lie in legacy professions and industries where intensified competition and restricted demand have shifted advantage to open, entrepreneurial mindsets—prepared to go ‘all in’ investing in top talent and change, and open and willing to letting go of the legacy notion that success must be driven from the top. These are the organizations where the greatest hesitancy to re-invent often lies.

Risk-averse and seeing ongoing investment in game-changing development as a line item cost rather than the high ROI commitment to the future it is, pull-centric leaders are inclined to go it on their own. Convinced that with just a bit more cajoling and bearing further down, they will shift their team from getting by to thriving.

In push cultures, leadership focuses, shapes and fuels success as it channels the high aspirations, focused discipline and unleashed creativity of a winning-obsessive team. Decision making is crisp, aligned with what matters and courageous. With their time and efforts freed from “pulling”, push leaders have the bandwidth and energy to stay out front, reading the world, reducing complexity to essence as they anticipate and position for the future.

Pull oriented leaders strive mightily, with all the best intentions, to mold old school players, resistant to or unskilled at taking the reins of change on their own, into a consistently winning team. Their efforts typically involve a combination of cajoling, hand ringing and negative incentives.

Pull leaders often hesitate to pull the switch. Seeking to ameliorate the concerns, egos and/or and varying priorities of diverse stakeholders, they postpone essential decision making and procrastinate where urgency is called for. In so doing, they progressively lose the confidence of those they are charged with leading.

When there is time, will and openness to investment, it is possible to teach legacy oriented, but willing learners, to play effectively in the new push game. Yet, to make this work, leadership must be willing to go all in. Focusing change at top tiers is a good starting point, but will fall short in the long run unless every layer of the organization is brought up to speed.

By the same token, expecting push related change to permeate the organization when senior level executives fail to embrace and model behaviors and practices consistent with push principles, is a non-starter. It simply will not happen.

Take a moment to reflect, and ask yourself these questions: How would you characterize your personal engagement and team culture today? From the time you wake up in the morning to the moment you place your head on your pillow to sleep, are you pushing to up your game? Are you pushing to move your team forward?

Or, are you waiting to be pulled? Your answer will be instructive.

Sandy Nelson

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: