Thursday, December 5, 2013

When the boss is wrong about chemistry

How do readers handle it when senior chemist managers routinely give bad (as defined by irrelevant, against literature precedent or simply wrong-on-first-principles) chemistry advice?

There are a number of tactics, all of which I have employed at one time or another:
  • Ignore the bad advice. Keep doing what you're doing, show milestone success (however defined) and move on. 
  • Nod noncommittally at the bad advice, run a few experiments to placate the manager, keep doing what you're doing. 
  • Quiet, subtle resistance. Questions like "are there concerns about neighboring-group participation?" 
  • Open, direct confrontation. "I don't think that's correct, and here's why..." 
Obviously, Tactic Four is to be deployed on a limited basis only. 

I'd like to hear reader experience and advice with these problems, if you have them. 

[When I hear incorrect chemistry counsel, it can really frustrate me and knock me off my flow. Speaking the chemical truth is important to me, and it makes me unhappy when senior people do not. (That was one of the really wonderful things about graduate school -- the likelihood that your professors knew exactly what they were talking about was better than 95%. In industry, it's... lower than that.) I should really learn to deal.]

UPDATE: Before anyone trots out the old, old joke about Rule 1 and Rule 2, I note I've been there already.


  1. Obviously it depends on the boss. I used to work for a person you would not want contradict at all, ever, - it was enough to do it once to end up on his blacklist forever. On the bright side, it was his posse of brown-nosers who had work on the next hare-brained project.

  2. I always used tactic 4. It eventually worked, they left me alone to get on with it. But you have to make sure it works!

  3. Tactic 5.) Accuse the manager that his/her stupid idea is due to his/her gross stupidity and incompetence, and the only reason why he has a job is because his post-doc advisor was a NAS member or some other kind of Shreiber-esqe mongrel and that he/she slept with the boss.

    When you are fired and make a decent salary from your next career you will thank me.

  4. The worst is when the boss actually has a good idea and thinks it's a license to force the next 10 bad ideas into the pipeline

  5. I am not sure I totally agree with assertion that profs know exactly what they are talking about, at least if the research area is cutting edge. In fact in grad school my PI would often offer people a negative opinions about how reactions might turn out, admittedly he had pessimistic tendencies overall, but also never outright discouraged some one from attempting any experiment and would be glad if did work in spite of his expectation otherwise. I am not sure if he sometimes did this intentionally as certain people appeared motivated to prove him wrong. Although he had an ego and was a "name" he was comfortable with himself enough to recognize did not know everything nor could always make absolute predictions.

    To the approach I think it does depend on the boss, the magnitude of the "error" and other factors however I might lean towards the 2nd option. Do additional "research" (literature, talk with other chemists) and then go back with specific info, in a non-confrontational manner, and review to find out if manager believes his position still valid. Yet be open as running a few experiments that could provide unexpected benefits even though would not necessarily make them a high priority just because source if indeed have more promising avenues.

    Of course this is a "do as I say not as I did" advice since I myself often used tactic 4 and ended frequently having to pay a price. On the other hand I have been on the other side of the table giving advice to Jr chemists at the bench and unfortunately know once away from the bench some knowledge diminishes quickly or gets scrambled however in cases my experiences and memory where adequate to make valuable suggestions that required action even if reluctantly pursued.

  6. I recommend the 24 (or 48) hour rule: Listen to the suggestion, claim you're too busy to do it today, but you'll get to it as soon as possible. Usually a competent boss will realize his/her mistake by then, and you can let the idea quietly die...

  7. I tend to always argue, but I'm at a small company and have a higher education than my boss.

  8. A while back I hired a post-doc to work on a specific reaction that required a starting material that could only be prepared by a laborious almost alchemical process. Once we had a small amount of the starting material in hand we had a profound disagreement on the best conditions for the reaction. In the end, out of mutual respect, we agreed to split the small amount of starting material into a prep scale batch that would be used according to my preferred route and a smaller NMR scale batch with a 10% reserve to confirm results. Our eventual publication on the topic mentions my preferred route only in terms of "don't try this".

    Management of a good argument leads to a resolution only if you hire and are hired by people you respect.

    1. This is the way that I would tend to resolve these sorts of ideas. Well done.

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  10. what a great topic...and since it applies to many facets of life, the rules can apply, right? I tend to agree with the trend for Profs vs. PIs in Industry, but the statistics may be a bit off....and a lot of industrially-minded researchers are now turning back to academia so this might change the way one feels about it. Anyway, a good PI or Prof will tend to gain trust in his trusty chemist over time and what works early my not hold true over time. If confident, 4 does seem important, however, maybe job security is in the back of a young chemist's mind. Either way - - I was confident so I did both. I did my thing and also the suggested route or strategy. Once the trend emerged I stopped getting much advise and simply targets. Soon that switched to my own designs and targets. Fortunately in my case, I have also been that PI where I also transferred the trust over as my ideas became less and less relevant. It seems a much more natural process than first glance.

  11. Tactic 6: I ran into this over 50 years ago. I handled the problem by pointing out to my boss that I liked working in R&D because it would be by definition expected for me to disagree with him from time to time. Why else hire at my level of training? And this is one of those times....

  12. You could try the Pauli technique: "Ooh, John, that's not even wrong". Do confirm that your severance package makes sense though.