Monday, September 20, 2010

Kissing-Up Is Just Wrong

Most of us want to think that we have succeeded through our own hard work and creativity, not because someone else paved the way for us. We are even more reluctant to have others think that the reason we got that job or that award was because of who we knew instead of on our merits. Anyone with any self-respect wants to feel they deserve the recognition that comes their way. When someone else whom we feel is undeserving gets ahead, we automatically presume it's because they had some unfair advantage.

It's no wonder, then, that we resist doing anything that might be characterized as "kissing-up". In this post, I'd like to consider aversion to self-promotion a bit more closely and in particular the role of peer pressure in our reluctance to set ourselves apart from the herd. Again, let's consider a hypothetical situation:

You are attending a major conference, along with many of your fellow post-docs. You are nearing the end of your tenure in your current lab and are looking for another position. While at the mixer, you are huddled with your group in a corner surveying the room. All the major players are there--the scientists who are heads of labs, program directors of funding agencies, and other important people. Most of them have a gaggle of people hovering around them. Everyone in your group is sneering at these hangers-on, saying things like, "Look at those brown-nosers. What a disgusting display."

You haven't joined in this condemnation because you are secretly wishing you had the nerve to go up to one of the Famous Scientists and introduce yourself.

Then, you spot Professor Brandon, a top researcher in your field whose work you've admired since graduate school. She's actually sitting alone at a table with a glass of wine, looking rather lonely. She appears to have lost weight and has changed her hair style, which may explain why no one else has noticed her. You see your chance to actually meet her and possibly ask about any potential openings in her lab. But you're afraid the other post-docs will ridicule you and you'll be branded as a "kiss-up". You hesitate, thinking that it's so much easier to stay with your pack where it's comfortable and safe. Maybe you'll have an opportunity later in the meeting to talk to her without your co-workers observing.

Two outcomes:

1. You remain with your pack and watch with dismay as another post-doc from another lab approaches Professor Brandon, who invites her to sit down with a wave of her glass. You observe their conversation as it becomes more and more animated. That could be you, you think. The opportunity to meet your idol later in the meeting never materializes.

2. Something comes over you, and you excuse yourself from your group. You go to the bar and get a glass of white wine and approach Dr. Brandon who is still sitting alone. You approach her table and ask, "Mind if I sit down? My feet are killing me." She replies that she's sitting down for that very same reason. She's hurt her foot on a recent field trip to Costa Rica and it started bothering her again. Since you once helped teach a field course in Costa Rica, you immediately jump at the chance to compare notes about the country, which then leads naturally into a discussion of mutual research interests. She says that she's just received word of a new grant from NSF to begin a large study in Costa Rica and she's looking for a post-doc. You hold your breath. She gives you her card and suggests you send her your CV.

Which one would you have done? Do you think outcome 2 qualifies as "kissing-up"? Does it really matter what your fellow post-docs think? What if you came back to your group's table and breathlessly announced that you are so excited because you've finally met your idol? Are they really going to criticize you for that? Even if they are so petty, so what?

It's understandable that people want to be liked by their co-workers and thought of as a team-player. But you don't have to sacrifice opportunities just to please the crowd. The herd wants you to follow along and not deviate from the path. If you do something that stands out, the herd reacts badly because your success emphasizes their lack of creativity and ability to think on their own.

A few pointers for those who wish to approach Famous Scientists:

1. Don't hover. If you wish to speak to someone, wait for an appropriate opportunity and go straight up and introduce yourself. If they don't seem interested in talking with you, say a few pleasantries and politely excuse yourself--and look for someone else to meet.

2. If you see a Famous Scientist you wish to meet and they appear to be in a deep conversation with another Famous Scientist, don't disturb them. They'll either ignore you or worse, tell you to get lost. Wait until you see an opening.

3. Approach people during events designed for informal mixing and conversation. They are more likely to be approachable than when they are busy and focused on work.

4. Ask someone to introduce you to Famous Scientist. However, be sure you have something to say. It's very awkward to be introduced and then stand there mute, staring helplessly at your shoes.

5. Don't leap into a litany of your background and research. Ask Famous Scientist about her work or interests or how she got started in her field. People almost always like to talk about themselves. If they don't reciprocate, wait until they mention something related to your work or interests, then say something brief. If there's interest, they'll ask you to tell them more about your work.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I really like your series, especially this one!
Your posts help me a great deal!
It is astonishing how often the leaders of "networking" workshops assume that people are socially very competent. This is - in my experience - rarely the case, especially within the nerdier sciences. And social clumsiness makes it fairly difficult to approach important persons. Thanks alot for your posts, and keep going - they are very much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Ditto what the previous commenter said. I appreciate the basic social advice.

Swamp Thing said...

Kissing up is wrong. However, it is just plain foolish to still believe that we are scientists working in a 1964-era bubble where the researcher (or resource manager) with the best results will get the best reward.

You cannot be succesful in wetland science without a high level of competency. Sure, you can fake it and hope to get moved into an administrative position, which happens frequently.

But in this era of slashing budgets and over-justification of every.little.thing. in wetland science, restoration, and management, you have to be more than competent. You have to be CONFIDENT. You have to be eager and willing to go discuss your results with your Congressperson. Or the Governor, or the Dean of your college.

Those who believe their programs are beyond reproach due to the quality of your work alone - proceed at your own peril.

If you have trouble socially - try teaching on the side. Join Toastmasters. Practice approaching strangers at parties, lunch, or anywhere. How quickly can you articulate what you do and how important it is, say, to a congressperson with a BA in English from Smith College?