Saturday, September 18, 2010
Everyone Knows How Important I Am
We've been talking in this series about self-promotion and how it is often necessary to take control of our reputations. In doing so, we must overcome our resistance to something that feels like boasting (a no-no drilled into us by our parents). Self-promotion is not bragging as we often think of it, i.e., shameless self- aggrandizement. Most of us can think of someone who exaggerates their accomplishments in an effort to appear more important or capable than they really are. That is not what we are striving for. Instead, what we are talking about is speaking up and telling others about our accomplishments in a way that is not obnoxious and that leaves people with a positive impression of us.
In this post, I'd like to talk a bit more about the notion that our work (e.g., numbers of publications, invitations to give talks, awards & honors, etc.) will speak for us--that there is really no need for us to advertise these facts.
I was disabused of the notion that my superiors were well aware of my standing in the scientific community and what benefits my research provided for the organization when my direct supervisor was overheard asking another scientist if my research was highly regarded (by the broader scientific community). The co-worker's response was something along the lines of, "You're kidding, right?"
No, he wasn't kidding. He really didn't know.....because he did not read the literature, did not go to major scientific conferences, could not distinguish between a paper published in the South Florida Naturalist and Nature, and generally did not know what science issues were currently relevant....in other words, he was a typical science manager in my government agency.
I was shocked at first. Then totally mystified. The explanation I finally settled upon (in addition to the above reasons) was that he was an interim supervisor from another department and with whom I had had no previous interactions. He was in the position temporarily and had not had a chance to pore over my CV and those of the other scientists now under his purview. Did he ever change his mind? No. The reason was that I never gave him any reason to change his perception of me. First of all, I did not consider it to be that important and made no effort to discuss his apparent mistaken perception of me (how embarrassing would that be?). During the one or two performance reviews that he conducted with me, I tried to emphasize my accomplishments, particularly my publication record, but this seemed to fall on deaf ears. I had already been pigeon-holed, and nothing I said was going to matter.
I consoled myself with the thought that my scientific colleagues outside the insular world of the government thought highly of me and my science contributions. You might be thinking about your own situation along the same lines. Your post-doctoral adviser or other supervisor may seem unimpressed with you and ignores your accomplishments---but you assuage your disappointment by telling yourself that you are making a name for yourself in your field and will be famous one day--that'll show them.
The only problem with this idea is that your colleagues (who think so highly of you) don't have control over your job, your salary, your promotions, and your resources. Fortunately for me, my position (and associated salary level) is evaluated by an external panel of peers based on my scientific record. Even so, local decisions are made regarding lab space, funding, support personnel, and other items important to one's success as a scientist--which has a feedback effect on my evaluations.
So how would you go about changing people's impression of you? Let's consider one really easy way.
Think about those lab meetings or faculty meetings that we all attend during which most everyone is moaning and groaning about the bureaucracy or lack of resources or something. Your inclination will be to join in the whinathon--to show solidarity with your oppressed colleagues--or because it simply feels good to complain. This won't get you anywhere.
Instead, what if you use such opportunities to tell about a success you had dealing with some difficult client or an idea you have to reduce the negative impact of a new policy on scientific output? If you consistently apply this approach during staff meetings and in interactions with supervisors and co-workers, it's very likely that your image will gradually change. When everyone else is looking like a bunch of whiners, you will be viewed by superiors as a leader who's able to overcome obstacles and is a valuable asset to the organization.
I know what you're thinking: "But my lab is so screwed up, and there are so many things that drive me up the wall, I can't help but complain." I sympathize. Most of us find ourselves at one time or another during our careers in what seems to be an intolerable environment. Sometimes there is not much we can do to change the situation.
However, we do have some control over how others view us. And that is what this series is all about.