Push Back…

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.




About Steve Street

I have worked in R&D within the Pharmaceutical industry for over 30 years. Up until April 2012 all of my career had been with one company, but that has now changed. I left that company and took up a new role on May 1, 2012 - still very much within the Pharmaceutical industry and again based in the UK. I have been blogging every week now for over 10 years but only on an external site since January 2012. Email updates of the blogs can be requested using the ‘follow’ option within Wordpress. The blogs are only ever my personal view of what I see, think and feel. I am delighted if you agree and find value; happy if you disagree with my views and overjoyed if you feel motivated to comment. Most of all I am simply grateful that you read. Cheers Steve
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4 Responses to Push Back…

  1. Good one Steve. It’s something I can certainly relate to in my own -very different- professional field, as I develop ideas for professional services and see how much interest colleagues have in them. To my mind the key to a healthy environment is one where ideas are judged as far as possible on their merits and not by who thought of them or internal competition. I count myself very lucky to be working in a relatively apolitical environment in that sense!

    • Steve Street says:


      Always good to hear from you and always great to get your excellent observations and comments – your description of the ‘healthy environment’ resonates strongly with me



  2. Sean Nugent says:


    I do enjoy your weekly stories/personal insights. This one was a bit different as it did not appear to be prompted by an event in your life this past week. I find that hard to believe though so what triggered it?



    • Steve Street says:


      Great stuff and thank you. This one was based partly on my experience in the previous week and partly was just one of those moments where I found myself sitting back a bit further and then thinking back even further.



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