‘I want us to be better prepared,’ said a colleague of mine during a particularly ponderous strategy session the other day. ‘We always seem to be on the back pedal.’
Her remark was met with blank stares and a vaguely uncomfortable silence in the room. As someone who eats his words for a living, I just couldn’t let it slide. ‘Back foot,’ I mumbled.
‘You said we’re always on the back pedal, but I think you meant back foot.’
‘Oh, back foot, back pedal, back burner. Tomato, to-may-to.’
Everyone giggled, relieved that she was being big about her obvious gaff and my muffled correction. But I also realised she’d made a good point, albeit inadvertently. No matter how ‘forward-thinking’ we corporate animals like to imagine we are, our words often prove the opposite. It’s no wonder we never get anywhere when we talk things through.
We’re always on the back foot
It’s a weird expression from the outset. Human beings have no such thing as a back foot. The last time I checked, we only have lefties and righties, unless we’re terribly unlucky and have only one of either. And in most situations, our feet are positioned adjacently, rather than with one preceding the other. Granted, walking or running means one foot is either in the back or in front at any given time, depending on the exact moment of your stride. But it’s not as though one foot is always leading and the other is always following. We have feet of equal opportunity. We don’t skip along like some exotic creature looking for a place to lay an egg, unless we’re drunk or just acting silly.
And only four-legged animals have back feet, don’t they? But then we wouldn’t really call them ‘feet’. They’d be either paws or hooves, and if they’re claws, the same argument prevails. Birds, like humans, only have two – right and left – and mostly next to each other. So what is all this back-foot business anyway?
No. We should walk proudly. We should stride confidently, putting one foot in front of the other at regular intervals. And we should speak that way too.
We were forced to back pedal
I admit that there’s something funny about mounting an argument you have no chance of winning, and careening downhill on a bicycle at a speed that spells injury. It’s the same feeling, really: losing control. The problem is bicycles just don’t work that way. Pedalling backwards will have no effect in preventing your crash. It would be like popping a car into neutral, moments before impact. That is, unless you’re riding one of those old-fashioned children’s bicycles which engages the breaks on a back pedal. But that doesn’t really match what you’re doing during a hopeless argument, now does it? Back pedalling doesn’t mean you’re slowing down to think, nor shutting up, which is probably the best thing you can do when your mouth is running away with you. In fact, it means you’re making things worse. It means you’re blabbing forth even more garbage to try and save face, to get you out of the situation you got yourself into by talking too much in the first place.
Back pedalling is never pretty. It’s a hopeless case, no matter how you look at it. And the result is always the same: a nasty crash and some bloody scrapes and bruises, mostly to the sensitive region known as your ego.
We’re putting it on the back burner
The back burner is where good food goes to die. It’s where hopeless dishes are left to their own devices on low heat. Oh, how we love to put stupid ideas on the back burner in the corporate world! It’s the tomato bredie with too much salt, it’s the lumpy cream-of-mushroom that gloops onto your plate, it’s the crispy mieliepap that scratches your gums … and boy does it deserve to be tossed without a second thought. But we feel so terribly sorry for the hapless sod who came up with the unpalatable mess that we just can’t get ourselves to do it. Poor so-and-so probably spent hours trying to serve up this tasteless gunk, so we can’t crush his spirit. Not in public anyway. But we also know it would be forgotten in due course if we just leave it … on the back burner. And when nobody’s watching, surely someone will get rid of it on the sly, as long as we don’t have to do the tossing ourselves. How useful is the old back-burner switcheroo when nobody has an appetite!
Let’s just take a step back
And lastly, ladies and gents, an old favourite when things are moving too fast. If you’re feeling a little lost, it’s time to throw a step back into the corporate cha-cha before you shake it all about. It makes you sound smart. It makes you sound considerate, and terribly thoughtful, as though you’re the last person on earth who would rush headlong into a bad situation. Use it freely in any meeting, at any time you wish, and you’ve bought yourself some noodle time. You can even combine it with a lingering pause after you’ve said it, while you silently rewind the conversation in your head. But what you don’t realise, corporate citizen, is that asking for a step back is inadvertently admitting you’re not really keeping up or, alas, that you’ve not been paying attention. It rarely means you’re reconsidering or re-evaluating. It’s a replay button. At best, it means you’re just not getting it like everyone else and you need some time for slo-mo. At worst, it shows you think your colleagues are all idiots and they should stop banging on about something that you knew was a bad idea from the get-go.
Taking a step back is the politically correct thing to do in any situation. Besides, reversing abruptly has never hurt anyone, has it?