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What Does a Great Leader/Manager Look Like?

Posted in Tenure and Promotion

It’s hard to develop your leadership and management skills in science if you have never seen what a good leader looks like.  In my coaching with scientist clients who have worked under very accomplished PIs, I hear them talk about  leadership and management styles that are clearly dysfunctional and destructive.  It’s all too easy to imitate those styles if that’s all you have experienced and if you believe those styles helped account for the success of the PIs.  In fact, those styles may have been obstacles to greater success, and the PI might have succeeded despite, rather than because of, those styles.

The problem of identifying good leaders and managers in science is compounded by the fact that cultural stereotypes about leaders exist, thanks to movie and television depictions of despicable characters.  Leaders of companies are often portrayed as bad guys who are only out for themselves and are willing to exploit their employees whenever it pleases their selfish aims.  Recent press coverage of bank CEOs, which plays into this stereotype, only add to the confusion about what a leader, good or bad, looks like.

Fortunately, there are some excellent resources out there to help you understand great leadership and management in science.  Unlike some of the fluffy bestsellers in the business book section of your bookstore, these are based on actual studies of how good and bad leadership works in and out of the lab.

One of my favorites is a book by Alice M. Sapienza called Managing Scientists: Leadership Strategies in Scientific Research.  Sapienza works from extensive interviews with scientists about their experience with good and bad PIs.  I’ll summarize her findings in a subsequent blog post.  Graduate students in the sciences should be required to take a science management course, and this should be a required textbook.

If you haven’t read it, get the valuable free book produced by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the  Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty.  Finally, take a look at some of the books written by Kathy Barker, especially At the Helm: A Laboratory Navigator.

I will continue to list good resources of scientific leadership and management on my Still Point Coaching and Consulting website.  Future blog posts will discuss the essential elements of great leadership and management in the lab and beyond.  Stay tuned.

Can’t Change Your Ways? Try This

Posted in Tenure and Promotion


Why is it so hard to change?  We all want to do it, once we feel that discomfort between where we are in life and where we want to be. Sure, there are plenty of people out there who say they can help you.  Psychologists, psychiatrists, New Age gurus, consultants and coaches tap into this multimillion dollar market.  There’s enough conflicting advice out there to make you wonder whether there really is a proven way to alter your behavior in positive ways.

If you really want to know how to change, the best way to find out is to study people who have successfully made great changes in their lives.  This was the reasoning of James O. Prochaska, a research psychologist who wanted to help people to overcome very serious habits, especially alcoholism and smoking.

Prochaska was aware that different types of therapy helped different patients more than others.  Combining his understanding of successful self-changers and his knowledge of different psychotherapy models, he formulated what is now called the Transtheoretical Model of change.  Its two main tenets: successful behavioral change unfolds over a period of time according to six basic stages, and each stage is best supported by a different type of intervention.  Unlike so many other approaches, Prochaska’s model has had proven success in everything from drug addiction to weight loss, adolescent rehabilitation and cancer management. 

Let’s cut to the chase.  Here are the 6 stages, summarized so nicely in Wikipedia that I stole them:

1. Precontemplation – lack of awareness that life can be improved by a change in behavior

2. Contemplation – recognition of the problem, initial consideration of behavior change, and information gathering about possible solutions and actions

3. Preparation – introspection about the decision, reaffirmation of the need and desire to change behavior, and completion of final pre-action steps

4. Action – implementation of the practices needed for successful behavior change (e.g. exercise class attendance)

5. Maintenance – consolidation of the behaviors initiated during the action stage

6. Termination – former problem behaviors are no longer perceived as desirable (e.g. skipping a run results in frustration rather than pleasure)

Although the stages are progressive, in real life people usually move back and forth through these stages until they finally succeed.  Relapse is normal and expected.

An approach that emphasizes taking concrete action isn’t appropriate for  someone from precontemplation (Stage 1) to contemplation (Stage 2)  because the person isn’t ready.  However, a self-awareness technique, be it psychoanalysis or a simple self-assessment method, might move a person to the second stage.

A good change agent (therapist, coach, etc.) will be able to identify what stage you are in and use the approach that is most appropriate.

Interested in learning more?  Read Prochaska’s Change for Good.  If you are working with a change agent and you feel things aren’t moving forward, find out if the approach she is using matches your needs at your current stage.  For self-changers, use the Stages of Change framework to move yourself into more desirable behaviors and to understand yourself (empathically) when you are in a rut.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Posted in Tenure and Promotion

If coaching is all about helping you discover and achieve a better life at work and home, then trusting your dreams would seem to be terribly important. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert has some eye-popping news for people who believe they know what will make them happy. In his new book Stumbling on Happiness, Gilbert uses experimental studies to support a radical idea: if we really want to know what will make us happy, we are better off looking at what makes others happy instead of relying on introspection.

Gilbert claims that people are very bad at predicting their future happiness because they don’t account for how well they will adapt to new situations. Thus, they expect that both positive and negative events will have a much greater impact on their happiness than they will. For example, people who are eager to marry someone they love experience a blip of extra happiness (usually), but within two years their self-assessment of overall happiness is about where it was before marriage. Also, women who believe their life will be joyful if only they have a child eventually rate childcare on the same level of fulfillment as doing laundry.

When I went through formal training at a coaching school, a lot of emphasis was placed on helping clients discover their dreams. We were trained in helping clients through visualization exercises. This kind of thing seems to be fairly common in coaching training and practice. Gilbert’s work throws water on this notion.

So what consistently helps people to achieve greater happiness? A warm family and close friends is unrivalled. The satisfaction of making progress towards a worthy goal. Raises and increases in responsibility and status should be less valuable — at least after a certain level is achieved — than having more harmonious relationships with co-workers, mentoring, and leading teams towards a goal that they can collectively feel good about.

One lesson for coaches and their clients: if the stakes are always lower than the client imagines, reminding the client of this fact should help to reduce stress, leading to better performance.

Another Explanation of the Science Gender Gap

Posted in Tenure and Promotion

First Lady Astronaut Trainee (NASA)

The Boston Globe recently published an interesting article that provides a common sense account of why more women don’t go into science: they don’t want to.

Quoting several social scientific studies and interviews with their authors, the writer claims that the gender gap in science is greater in countries where women have more rights and overall freedom to choose their professions. She also cites other studies showing that women generally prefer working in people-intensive situations. In psychology, unlike the natural sciences, women outnumber men 10-1.

The findings of these studies have no bearing on whether women suffer from sexism in their scientific careers or whether women are typically discouraged from entering science. For anyone who has had children, the selective bias of girls from human relations and boys for tools seems obvious. Girls generally go for the dolls and boys head towards the trucks.

Perhaps if there’s a lesson to be learned from these studies, it is that science needs to be conducted in a more sociable, humane environment in order to attract more women. Men still set the rules of the game in science, and often it’s not pretty.

The Right Stuff for Scientists: Courage and Property

Posted in Careers, Coaching, and Leadership

One little secret, for young scientists who haven’t discovered it yet: the most accomplished scientists are not necessarily the brightest people in the field. Creativity and dogged determination are important, but two qualities also distinguish great researchers — courage, and the ability to claim ownership of one’s domain of expertise.

The courage to fail, and the acknowledgment that public failure is a possibility, is critical for a highly successful career. You need to be willing to promote your theories, even though they may be wrong or may be misunderstood. As an extreme version of this, see Richard Feynman’s wonderfully titled book: What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. Before you stick your neck out at a conference or in a publication, you need to get informal feedback from colleagues. Once you feel confident about your work, however, you need to take the risk that you may make a fool of yourself — even if you are right.

In order to gain this confidence, and to have earned it, you must be able to claim some turf in your scientific territory. Care enough about what you have observed and understand its scientific value well enough that you can claim it as your own. There’s a tricky balance here: you must feel so confident of your work that you can defend it, yet you must be flexible enough to yield if you are proven wrong with good reason. Too many well-known scientists have repeated their disproven theories at conferences long after their closest colleagues have quietly written them off.

Are you a genius whose work nobody understands, or are you a stubborn, intractable person who won’t admit that you are wrong? Your closest associates can help here, if you let them. Listen to their logic, trusting that at least they don’t intend to shipwreck your career for the sake of their own success.

Once you can properly own your accomplishments, courage will come more easily. Junior scientists should look to their seniors for examples and inspiration. Find people who have persevered despite repeated rejections and eventually remade their fields. And don’t be afraid to be afraid. The only way to build your courage is to acknowledge and then ignore the fear.

Treating Myopia

Posted in Coaching, and Consulting

Myopia is a condition of attention and concentration. The mind naturally defends itself and its interests. Long before and after Freud observed (invented) the Ego, it’s has been well known that we mediate between what we really want to do and what we think we can get away without shame or punishment.

Given all this work to do, and the limited amount of psychic ram available to Homo sapiens, how can we expect to attend to and take care of our long-term interests? How can we possibly even see ourselves clearly, or at least imagine how others see, hear, and judge us?

Psychic myopia is thus part of the human condition. And that’s why we need others around us to mirror us accurately, to nudge us out of our ruts, to help us to lower our fear and greed long enough to get perspective.

There is no cure for psychic myopia. But we can borrow spectacles from those whose professions enable perspective in various dimensions of life. Good therapists, good consultants, good coaches, and good spiritual advisers.

Psychic myopia, conversely, can harden when we put ourselves in the company of bad therapists, bad consultants, bad coaches, and bad spiritual advisers. They tell us, at first, that what we see is true and complete, that we are wise and that the world is foolish. They stroke our egos, blinding us with our own limited vision.

How do you tell the difference between the good spectacles and the blinders? The good spectacles make us feel uncomfortable and a bit out of control at first, but soon we feel better and more effective. The blinders make us feel good at first, but soon we grow smaller and more dependent.

If you are looking to others to gain insight into your business or your life, which help with psychic myopia are you receiving? Can you tell and feel the difference?

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If Scientists Wrote Like Journalists

Posted in Publishing, and Writing

Everybody loves a story, and scientists are no exception. When working with young scientists, it is wonderful to witness when someone stops thinking of their papers as tabulations of results and starts thinking in terms of stories. Yes, there is a standard format for writing research papers which seems cold and dry, emphasizing clarity over story. Abstract. Introduction. Methods. Results. Discussion.

But really compelling research articles can read a bit like detective stories, transcending the limits of the research journal format. Foreshadowing, elements of suspense, the surprising ending — they can all be built into the scientific story. There is something deeply satisfying, even primal, about sharing a story of discovery.

As an editor at Science once told a senior author, “Surprise me.”
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If Journalists Wrote Like Scientists

Posted in Tenure and Promotion

Writing about scientific issues has improved dramatically in print and electronic media over the past decade. Part of this may be due to sustained efforts by scientists to insist upon accuracy and to complain when journalists get the science wrong. In addition, more and more people with scientific backgrounds are choosing to become journalists.

It’s striking that this trend towards greater critical thinking in science reporting has not spread into other subjects of coverage. I’m reminded of this particularly in the coverage of politics. This morning I heard a journalist interview a Clinton campaign member who argued that Clinton is the best choice because polls say she can beat McCain more decisively. An Obama supporter countered that he is in the best position to beat McCain because he has more support among Democrats. What would a trained natural or social scientist say in response to these claims? Like so many areas that journalists cover with a straight face, these arguments have so little weight to them that they are meaningless. There’s no basis for having any sense of probability that either assertion is true.

Some people may chafe at my complaint, claiming that you can’t apply experimental methods or probability theory to test the viability of a candidate who isn’t even facing off with their opponent from the other party. That’s right. So why not challenge the supporters’ claims as mere puffery or, better yet, ignore them and move on to more substantial matters?

Reporters put up daily with pseudoscientific interpretations of poll data, which are about as reliable as weather predictions — pay attention to the forecast for the next three days, but bring your umbrella just in case. If journalists took a hard look at what they are reporting, it would be a very short news day. Which would leave more time to play good music instead. I’m all for that.
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The Sorry State of Coaching

Posted in Tenure and Promotion

Sadly, there is no science of coaching. Professional coaching at its best is largely based on rules of thumb, heuristics, trial and error, a limited amount of psychology, a bit of wisdom and a dash of hope.

Coaching is the proper domain of empirical psychology. The field must move towards relying on empirically validated methods for helping people identify goals, motivating them to achieve those goals, and supplying the training and support they need to get there.

When universities fully invest in the study of coaching as an applied, interdisciplinary profession, things will dramatically change. You will see a shakeout in the coaching world, and clients will be able to more reliably evaluate and choose good coaches.

Most coaching training currently takes place in private institutes, using methods inherited from self-help movements, new age philosophy, and psychological techniques that were popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The only qualification for enrolling in coaching training is a credit card. I expect that most of these schools, and the methods they use, will vanish when coaching is established on empirical foundations. I can’t wait.

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