I am a chemist – I am and always will be a chemist – for good or for…well for good. I worked as a chemist for twenty years after seven years at school and six years at University. That’s a lot of chemistry. For fifteen years my work involved proposing chemistry plans to my supervisor or leadership. I learned about developing and proposing plans…and I learned all about ‘push back’ strategy.
I worked in Research. Research and Development is all about opinions and ideas – Research and Development is seldom about right or wrong. We don’t often know if our challenges are solvable or if our opportunities are achievable. We have opinions and options with pros and cons. Assessments are made on experience, insight, opinion – nothing is black and white most of what we do is only ever shades of grey.
I eventually worked the key to whether my proposals tended ended up being supported or rejected. Confidence. Good was when I gave the recipients confidence that my work would be successful. Bad was when I didn’t.
And these were the scenarios in which I first observed the ‘push back’ strategy…from a leader to a colleague. ‘I wouldn’t work on those plans. It’s just not going to work’. And I can still recall my colleague’s face – a combination of surprise and panic. I still recollect his deflated body language as he left to rethink. And I can remember how strongly I felt…he hadn’t defended his proposals.
In that instant then, I had observed everything there is to know about the ‘push back’ moment. Leaders often find themselves ‘pushing back’ on proposals or strategies. Clearly sometimes it’s because they have knowledge or experience which mean they don’t believe the plan. But as often leaders push back to test how strongly the advocate believes in what they are proposing.
In hindsight then my biggest surprise was my colleague not defending his plans – he did not ‘push back’ against the ‘push back’. Inevitably this (lack of) action on his part implied to me (let alone anyone else in the room) that my colleague himself did not have confidence in what he was proposing.
My learning was to think deeply about plans I propose. To socialise and develop my ideas. To ensure I come to a debate full of belief and confidence 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 opportunities for us to discuss and for me to learn and for me to improve.
The downside? The upside maybe? I find it hard to give up on anything I propose.
Just as importantly I learned more about how to push back effectively against a push back. I always put myself in the leader’s shoes. What experiences do they have that I don’t? What knowledge that I don’t? What different or higher priorities?
I try to assess their response. How passionate or detailed? Was it just them…or the whole team? When everyone dislikes an idea (no matter how sure I am) then it’s likely better to accept and move on.
But debate is also good. It’s opinion, it’s never personal. It’s science or finance or people or business. I listen. I consider. I am good to adapt and willing to align. I look for close analogies. I like to incorporate. I love plan B. I always take time…and never take offence.
When opinions differ it’s good to defend, define, describe and debate. To own and express and to be open.
Above all be true to ourselves…