Saturday, October 15, 2011
Some scientists seem to hire clones of themselves. Perhaps they assume that it will be easier to interact with someone who is more like themselves or that their work habits will be more to their liking. With a large team, the thinking might be that a homogeneous group will work better together, be more productive, and efficient. Early in my career, I favored people who were similar to me in terms of work habits, organization, and personality. I discovered, however, that a more diverse group or partnership is better at problem solving and more creative overall than one with very similar personalities and skills.
When I started out as a PI, I had one assistant/technician, and the two of us worked side-by-side doing fieldwork and labwork. I felt most comfortable working with another woman whose personality and work habits were similar to mine. In other words, a clone of myself. My research often took us on field trips of a week or more to distant locations where we would be spending 24/7 together. I knew that I wanted someone who (like me) was hard-working, uncomplaining, quiet, well-organized, and generally task-oriented. After technical qualifications, personality and work ethic were important considerations for me. Anyone who has done fieldwork knows that personality clashes or disagreements over work habits can frequently arise and cause much misery, especially for the project leader. Such clashes can, of course, occur in the lab or office setting, but are magnified during travel, living in close quarters, and in conjunction with various logistical and other travel-related problems, which add to the overall stress. Fieldwork is difficult enough without having to deal with someone who has to be constantly cajoled into getting up early or working late to finish a task or who complains about everything. If my research had been totally lab-based, I could see (maybe) working with someone whose personality was, let's say, abrasive, as long as they did the work. However, I knew that the person I selected as an assistant also needed to be a good travel companion and would be easy to get along with.
My point is that my early decisions about a research assistant were driven by a narrow focus on personality and anticipated working conditions (in addition to the obvious technical qualifications). It did not occur to me then that there might be advantages to having someone quite different from me as an assistant. This early situation also differed from later in my career when I had a larger research group with up to ten people (employees, students, volunteers). With a larger group, there was a greater opportunity to work with people who were very different from me in personality and problem-solving skills.
When we consider diversity in relation to the workforce, it is usually from a legal, EEO standpoint: race, religion, age, gender. However, that is not what I'm referring to here. I'm talking about diversity in interpersonal skills, work habits, and personality traits that influence important skills such as problem solving. When you are hiring someone, you are concerned with two main aspects: their technical qualifications and how they will fit into (and contribute to) the work environment in your lab. As employers, we tend to focus on the technical aspects and neglect to fully examine how that person will complement the existing team. If we do consider the latter, it may be to seek out someone like us, rather than someone very different. This approach can, of course, get us into trouble if it leads us to exclude certain protected groups that happen to differ from us. Aside from the legal ramifications, this approach is short-sighted in terms of developing a team that has diverse problem-solving or interpersonal skills and consequently has a broader range than a more homogeneous group.
I did not begin thinking seriously about diversity with respect to my research group until a problem arose with a postdoc. This postdoc caused a lot of bad feelings within my research group, which included students and several master's level technicians. Her main problem was "PhDitis"--she felt that she was superior to anyone lacking a Ph.D., regardless of their experience and skills. At the time, I had several excellent technicians who had master's degrees, but with years of job experience. Some were experts in certain lab analyses....techniques that this postdoc had never performed herself. Yet she still felt that she knew better than they did...and often expressed this sentiment. As you might imagine, there was quite a bit of grumbling. I had tried talking to this postdoc about how skilled my technicians were and that they really responded better when their expertise was appreciated and acknowledged. Unfortunately, these words fell on deaf ears. So I came up with another approach.
After doing a bit of reading about team diversity, I assigned my group a paper on the topic (which, unfortunately, I can no longer find--this was some years ago) to be discussed at our weekly lab meeting. I also asked each person to take an online test (similar to this one) that would identify their "personality type"--according to a Myers-Briggs typology. When we met, we listed everyone's personality type and discussed the makeup of our group, whether our personalities were complimentary or duplicative, and which personalities our group was missing. This exercise was intended to be a fun way to get everyone to understand and appreciate what each person brought to the group. I don't recall the exact breakdown, but we had quite a diversity of personality types.
Most everyone seemed to find the exercise enjoyable and interesting (and a welcome departure from our usual lab meetings). Most everyone understood why I organized this particular lab meeting and expressed a positive reaction to my added comments about how each person, regardless of background or educational achievement, was important to the success of the research we conducted. There was one exception. You can guess who did not recognize the reason for this meeting and who argued about the relative contributions of individuals to a team effort.
Although I failed to change the post-doc's mind about the value of team members with different educational backgrounds, I developed a deeper appreciation of diversity and the potential benefits to a research group and to me as a PI. When I later considered applicants for positions in my group, I especially looked for well-qualified people who were complimentary to me in personality. I'm more introverted and tend to be a perfectionist, for example. So I began hiring assistants who were outgoing and had interpersonal skills that I lacked. A PI who is naturally gregarious but disorganized might benefit, for example, from hiring someone who was highly organized, efficient, and more introverted. Someone else might be a "big-picture" kind of thinker and would benefit from hiring a person who is more detail-oriented. If you are a PI who tends to be "low-key" and modest (and reluctant to self-promote), you might benefit from an assistant who talks a lot about your research successes, someone who essentially does your bragging for you. These are just a few examples. You can probably think of more...that especially relate to you and your situation.
Everyone has one or more short-comings in terms of work habits and/or personality. Even if you have a well-rounded personality and good work habits, it's unlikely that you will possess ALL the problem-solving or interpersonal skills to cope with every professional situation. For example, previous posts have talked about leadership styles here and here, which can differ dramatically in terms of interpersonal skills. Leaders tend to fall into two types: those with good interpersonal skills and a focus on their followers' needs and those who are more task-oriented. The first type of leader has mostly communal qualities: nurturing, sensitive, sympathetic, warm, collegial; the second type has agentic qualities: aggressive, dominant, ambitious, controlling. If you fall into one of these categories, it's likely that you lack the qualities of the other type of leader (although it's possible to combine some qualities of both). Some of these traits might be changed with effort, but others are hard-wired and resistant to change.
Recognizing my limitations (e.g., interpersonal skills) was a prerequisite to identifying the type of assistant who might enhance my team. It's not easy to examine one's limitations, but the effort can pay off in the long-run.