First law of leadership: be human first, scientist second

Alisen Antes in Nature:

“I was a human first, and then I learned to be a scientist. If I forget the human part, then that’s a problem.” This is what I heard when I interviewed 52 scientists recognized as exemplary by their peers for their scientific accomplishments and conduct. Related themes come up in my work with scientists who have been referred to a formal remediation programme after lapses in research integrity. I’m an organizational psychologist, specializing in the scientific workplace. What interests me are the decisions and behaviours that yield innovative, rigorous, ethical research. The past few months have drawn attention to unhealthy working environments, especially bullying in academia. We should also focus on a related, widespread problem: mentors who have excellent intentions but limited knowledge of how to create a healthy workplace. Many scientists whom I work with feel that they lack management and leadership skills. They want help with concrete tasks such as coordinating projects or facilitating meetings. But what comes up most emphatically is that conducting research requires them to establish and maintain positive relationships in the lab.

Many researchers in our remediation programme have had strained interactions with compliance officers and have struggled in their roles as supervisors. By contrast, exemplars resoundingly emphasize how they foster good team dynamics by being involved, approachable and aware of the workplace atmosphere. As one told me: “Rule number one in the lab is harmony. First and foremost, we have to get along, we have to respect each other, we have to trust each other, and that is the operating principle for everything else.” Yet, given the choice between working on a scientific paper or broaching a difficult conversation, many researchers pick the former — the task that feels most directly connected to research goals. Principal investigators might need to work consciously against the feeling that ‘nothing is getting done’ during personal interactions. Because, whether it is mentoring a struggling trainee or celebrating a hard-won achievement, investing in strong, respectful relationships is an investment in effective science.

So, what to do? All principal investigators should add relationship building to their to-do lists.

More here.