Growing Pains

I’ve been very lucky to have a wonderful mix of people in the lab. They work well together and are a real team. When one member of the group has been stressed or over the top about something, everyone else has pitched in to lighten that person’s load. I don’t know if I have set this up consciously, or if it was just lucky random chance that things worked out this way. I do know that I laid out the expectation for each hire that we were going to work together as a team (yes, that is the royal ‘we’), and that we should all be considerate and respectful toward each other. Perhaps one factor that has contributed to this supportive and cooperative atmosphere was the relative absence of dominating personalities thus far. Then again, maybe not.

I realize now that with growth of my group, that the personality and cooperativity of the group may change. I admire assertiveness, but I realize that having very assertive individuals as employees may be a double edged sword. On the one side, if you want a science career, especially if you are a girl, and you aren’t assertive- your career path is going to be that much more difficult. A little assertiveness goes a long way.

But excessive assertiveness can also create problems when you expect individuals to function as a team. Excessive assertiveness or aggressiveness can make some members of the team feel continuously disrespected, and undermine morale. An uncomfortable atmosphere in the lab can make people not want to be there- they start thinking more about intra-lab politics, and less about the next experiment and how to push projects forward. Conflict follows. I’m sure almost everyone who has run a lab (or a team of any kind) has had to deal with one person who seems to poison the whole atompshere of the group, perhaps because of their aggressive nature.

So today I ask: How do you foster individual assertiveness, while maintaining the productive functioning of your research ‘team’?  Does this have to be actively taught and managed? When do you step into festering conflicts between lab members and promote fairness in the group?   I do not know of many colleagues that actively manage these aspects of their lab groups (nor have I had many conversations with other PIs about this), and I’ve seen conflict be extremely damaging to morale and productivity. I am erring more toward taking an active role to manage these situations myself. And golly- I’m practically a professional at conflict management at home (I mean,  I have two girls ..11 and 7)… but I hardly think I can put my trainees in time out when they are fightin’ and bickerin’. Or maybe I should…


12 thoughts on “Growing Pains

  1. I think assertiveness crosses the line when it nudges against personal and professional boundaries. Some people are very enthusiastic about a project and pursue multiple lines of inquiry, even if it means stepping on the toes of others. This can happen purposefully or accidentally and I think just telling the person to focus on their own stuff should reveal if they are being purposeful in their over-reaching. I don’t think it makes someone happy if they feel they are constantly having to battle over control of their own project.

    We recently had to deal with an assertiveness issue where a new person was being treated rudely by a senior member. This was a stinky elephant in the room until the PI had a meeting and just had everyone speak truthfully about the situation [adult time-out?]. This is always going to be uncomfortable but usually can clear the air if people are honest.

    I don’t know what I would do if someone was constantly poisonous. I suppose I value my lab overall but unfortunately there is no HR to go to. Can you ask them to leave? I would always hope that these people would not be allowed to become PIs and continue their reign of terror.

  2. My lab is awesome in fostering a great work environment – this is why.

    The PI and Lab manager NEVER NEVER are disparaging of other lab members. They do not put down student A to student b ( a common occurence in other labs)

    We are NOT allowed to do either at least not within their earshot.
    We are expected to provide assistance and support to all our colleagues in respectful and professional manner regardless of our personal feeling about them.
    Our lab manager is our lab manager. Her decisions are respected and supported by the PI. PI will not listen to you complain about Lab manager.
    Our lab members are all older. We are all over 30 with our own personal lives.

  3. Assembling and managing teams of highly creative iconoclastic ambitious individuals–who are the ones you *want* in your lab because they have the greatest chance of doing something truly novel–is much more difficult than assembling and managing teams of “team players”. It absolutely takes active management to ensure that these kind of people do not go overboard with their ambition and iconoclasm and thereby interfere with the progress of others.

    As far as exactly how to achieve this, whole books have been written about the topic. It is important to make it clear that there is absolutely no tolerance whatsoever for rude or abusive behavior.

  4. Oh, and I should have added that the single most important thing to do in this regard is develop your intuitions for screening out people who are going to end up rude and/or abusive during the interview process. My policy is that if I or any of my current lab members feel even the slightest hint of interpersonal discomfort with someone when they interview, then they are O-U-T.

  5. I think the point SM made about never, ever gossiping is really important. I have experience with PIs who talk about student A to student B and it is awful. Also, make it really clear what everyone’s roles and responsibilities are. I’ve found that really assertive personalities can lead to not-my-job-ism or do-this-for-me-because-your-work-is-less-important-ism. Maybe your tech or lab manager can have a larger or at least very well defined role. Uh, unless it’s the manager who’s the problem.

    You can’t tell someone to change his/her personality, but you can ask that they change their behavior. But you have to be able to identify the behavior that you want changed.

  6. Feeling guilty again! Yeah, I talk about people to other people – I am human after all – and I have one specific problem student whose issues are regularly discussed among group members (I overhear stuff, they leave the door open) and with the student themselves and between me and other individual group members.

    I am stuck with student, student is stuck with use, short of them quitting. I can’t move student, get student reassigned, fire student (at least I’m not paying student from a direct grant) – I have no option but to continue to support student to graduation (if they can get that far). Student seems quite happy – I have specifically asked the grad officer for the department to check. But nothing really seems to work long term in terms of getting student working effectively and focusedly within the group without disrupting it. Basically, student is not just lacking in skills, but seems to have serious problems retaining any instructions, advice, methods, recipies. algorithms or sticking to commonly agreed protocols.

    For everyone’s health-and-safety, for the sake of student’s project (which is potentially exciting and valuable to the overall work of the lab), we all need to keep adjusting, watching, reminding, correcting, both our own actions and student’s – without making student feel insulted or micromanaged or picked on, or letting student absolve responsibility for their own actions, because that’s not going to help – because I’m not in the lab all day to do it and because, well, we all help each other, it’s just that for a variety of reasons student seems to need a lot more help (I’m increasingly suspecting an undiagnosed focus-related learning disorder like ADHD – given student’s non-traditional education routes and clear basic intelligence that would be a satisfying answer all round).

    When I tried NOT to talk about this stuff with the others, there was more resentment and grumbling. They felt ignored and hard done by, that student was ‘getting away’ with stuff. I keep emphasising his strengths, and that we’re all in it together, and talking seems to help.

    I can’t decide how MUCH of a problem talking about other people is in geenral – I do it all the time with groups of real-life friends or with family, because we care about and are interested in each others’ lives (and yes, we are mostly female and we like to talk about fuzzy stuff). My research group at the moment is mostly female, mostly either in long-distance relationships or single and without local family, and we get on well (at least, I kid myself that we do). We’ve all done fieldwork with some other members of the group, which itself is usually a transcending-professional-boundaries thing. So I think it’s quite normal that there’s a fair level of talking about each other and other people outside the group as well as about science. People are inattely confusing, fascinating, and worthy of discussion. To me, the key is that things are POSITIVE and RESPECTFUL, that discussion of problems is advice-seeking and solution-oriented, that everyone is valued for their contributions and expected to work on their weaknesses, me included.

    I think that the first thing to do is to decide what kind of lab leader you need to be and where you aspire to be, then be open about it. My style seems to be more older sibling than boss, facilitator not manager, colleague not superior. Maybe I need to be more boss-like? If only I could work out what boss-like looked like… The point about the importance of hiring, of listening to doubts, is critical, I think – Student was, well, not hired by me, and there were warning signs aplenty that fitting them into the existing group would be tricky. But so far we survive!

  7. I think the biggest problem I’ve seen with PIs is avoidance of conflict, instead of management of conflict.
    Science requires smart people. Interpersonal skills are learnable, but it’s extremely difficult to tell someone that they are “poisoning the group” without prompting a negative reaction (anger; crisis-of-confidence; defensiveness…). So you have to be able to identify specific behaviors and point out how they are problematic and offer alternatives. It’s a lot of work- but I think raising kids probably requires a similar process.
    Also, this may seem weird, but don’t approach the situation like you know who the problem is. It’s easier to talk about problems if you assume no one is at fault and it’s all just differences in communication styles that can be bridged from both sides. Plus, you never know what’s going on in that person’s life- the aggression may be a personality trait, but it can certainly be exacerbated by certain types of stress.

  8. Becca- I think conflict avoidance is a huge HUGE problem. No one likes conflict- but sometimes it is the only way to work through an issue. And, I don’t think what you say-
    Also, this may seem weird, but don’t approach the situation like you know who the problem is.
    is weird at all. I’m not in the lab much, I’m very much in favor of the no-fault, let’s figure this out together type approach.

    ecogeofemme/ Scientistmother- A certain amount of talking among lab members is bound to occur. I can only do my best to set a good example that we all treat each other in a positive and respectful way.

    C PP- I think you are right, I do need to develop my intuition- I actually think I have a rather well-developed sense of this. I do not, however, always listen to my intuition- or to what people are telling me indirectly. This is where I can improve.

  9. Sure, some talking about other lab members will happen, but I was referring more to gossip. For example, it’s not cool to say things like, “Student A’s grant is totally not going to get funded” or “Student B is a terrible writer” or “the only reason Student C got that award is because he knew Important Person”. That kind of thing is hurtful when it gets back to the person, and it always does. And that’s bad for lab harmony.

    JaneB, I really doubt that is the kind of thing you do. I’m basing that conclusion on the sweet personality you share on your blog and the fact that you said you say things that are positive and respectful. Positive and respectful things don’t usual hurt feelings.

  10. For example, it’s not cool to say things like, “Student A’s grant is totally not going to get funded” or “Student B is a terrible writer” or “the only reason Student C got that award is because he knew Important Person”.

    Gossip is certainly not cool, but it is extremely important to openly and honestly analyze the reasons behind successes and failures in the lab. This allows all lab members to learn from the successes and failures of each individual.

  11. I’ve been told to be more assertive more times than I care to remember. I am completely torn as to how to do this. Male PIs (including my PI)/professors tell me that I’m too nice, female PIs/professors tell me that I need to be more cocky (I cringe when they use that word… do they want me to grow a penis?)

    Everyone is acting as if being nice will be utterly detrimental to my career as a scientist. Is it necessary to be a b*tch to be respected as a female scientist? Do I need to step on other people for them to realize I am dedicated to my work?

    I guess this is me thinking out loud. sorry for the rambling. carry on as you were…

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