I am a chemist. I worked as a chemist in one guise or another for twenty years after seven years at school and six years at University, That’s a lot of chemistry. For nearly fifteen years I regularly proposed chemistry plans to my supervisor or to leaders of the department I was working in. As well as learning a great deal about developing and proposing plans I learned all about the ‘push back’ strategy.
By definition (this was research after all) it wasn’t possible for any proposals I ever made to be right or wrong. No-one knew if our challenges were solvable, or if our opportunities were achievable. There were only ever opinions and options…pros and cons. My plans could be assessed as being good or bad. Good if the recipients felt confidence that my work would be successful. Bad was when they felt the opposite. Their assessments were made on experience, insight, opinion – nothing black and white…only ever shades of grey.
I first observed the ‘push back’ strategy in one of these sessions…from a leader to one of my colleagues. ‘I wouldn’t work on those plans. I don’t believe they will work’. I can still recall my chemistry colleague’s look of deflation. I can still picture his body language as he left to rethink his work. And I can remember how strongly I felt when my colleague did not defend his proposals.
In a nutshell then, this was everything there is to know about ‘push back’. A leader will often ‘push back’ on a proposal or strategy. Sometimes because they do not believe the plan…but sometimes simply to see how strongly the advocate believes in what they are proposing. In hindsight I was surprised and shocked by my colleague not defending his plans – in effect him not ‘pushing back’ against the ‘push back’. This (lack of) action implied to me that my colleague himself did not have faith in what he was proposing.
From these sessions, I learned to think deeply about plans I propose. To socialise and develop my ideas. To ensure I come to debate confident and full of belief in what I want to do. I learned to love it when anyone pushes back on my proposals. Whether they are testing me or whether they don’t believe what I believe. Both are openings to discuss, to learn and to improve. But I find it so hard to give up on anything I propose. Maybe to a fault…or to a strength?
And as importantly I learned more about how to push back against a push back. My first action is always to put myself in a leader’s shoes. How experienced are they in this area? Do they have knowledge that I don’t? Different or higher priorities?
And I assess their responses. How passionate or detailed is their rebuttal? Is it just them…or a whole team? When everyone dislikes an idea (no matter how sure I am) then it may be better to accept and move on.
But when we debate, then debate is the key. It is matters of opinion, it is never personal. It is science or finance, people or business. I listen intently. I consider deeply. I am happy to adapt and willing to align. I look for analogies – the closer the better. I love to incorporate and look for plan B. I always take time and never offence.
Most everything we do is a matter of opinion. When our opinions differ we have to be willing to define, describe and debate. We have to own and express, be open to influence and input and above all be true to ourselves.