You know this scene: a young scientist is presenting to a group that includes an accomplished senior scientist. At some point, the senior scientist raises serious questions about the quality of the science being presented, and the presentation is halted or redirected. A difficult lesson is learned by the young scientist.
This typically unfolds in one of two ways:
The senior scientist uses the situation as a teaching moment, for the presenter, and for every other young scientist in the audience who could learn from the critique. Let’s call this the “Developmental Event.”
The senior scientist critiques the science as an assault on science in general and the organization’s integrity, is dismissive toward the presenter and may infer insult at being asked to attend. Let’s call this the “Demoralizing Event.”
The Impact of the Two Types of Events
Early-career professionals usually crave positive attention from senior members of their field. It is lifeblood for their confidence and the development of their competence. For organizations, a reputation for providing it can mean being an employer of choice. As one senior scientist noted recently, “This is really important stuff.”
Now, back to the scene above. In the Developmental Event, the presenter is disappointed with being unsuccessful with the science, but feels smarter now, and supported as a member of the organization and as a scientist. The attention received has had a positive effect. The young person is learning how to keep his/her ego from interfering with his/her learning.
In the Demoralizing Event, the presenter is left feeling as if his/her membership and position in the organization is at risk. In that defensive mindset, he or she learns little about how to improve their science, and a lot about risk avoidance.
When young scientists routinely experience the Developmental Event, they do better science, rapidly take on additional responsibility, show up for work with energy and enthusiasm, and develop risk tolerance and loyalty to their employer. They appreciate the senior scientist and emulate the behavior. It brings out the best in them as people.
The range of responses to the Demoralizing Event is as diverse as there are personality types. (Note: watch House M.D. for an exaggerated illustration.) Over a large population of young scientists, the impact is the opposite of that of the Developmental Event.
There are many interactions between senior and junior scientists, everyday, formal and casual, that can end up as Developmental or Demoralizing. They occur hundreds of times a day in a large pharmaceutical company or research institution. Due to their frequency and impact, they are perhaps the most significant type of culture-shaping event in science-based organizations.
What can be done to encourage Developmental events and avoid Demoralizing ones?
Starting Point: The Allegiances of a Senior Scientist
Senior scientists have multiple allegiances:
- They are concerned for their own success and recognition as scientists, and in the organization.
- They are responsible to the integrity of the scientific method, and to their field.
- They also have responsibility to the specific research or development work being done – to the mission of the project.
- When collaborating with a team of colleagues, they have loyalty to that interdependence.
- They have a responsibility to their employing organization.
- They have a loyalty to teaching, to bringing up the next generation of scientists, with a priority on their protégées.
How do these allegiances impact the Developmental vs. Demoralizing outcome? What matters is the allegiance that is primary to the senior scientist in that moment. It is a focus on the sixth allegiance listed above that enables the Developmental interaction. If the senior scientist can calm his/her concern about the first five allegiances, and focus on the teaching, on the needs of the young scientist standing before them, a positive interaction can be created. This is an essential first step.
Increasing the Odds of Something Good Happening
What determines the likelihood of this fifth allegiance being preeminent in that moment?
Some senior scientists come to work each day with the teaching priority as their norm. They are considered the “natural mentors.” For others, this is not as natural an orientation, and they need a regular reminder – perhaps as real-time as when they enter a conference room for a meeting. Others need a more fundamental reframing of their priorities, from someone they see as knowledgeable and as having their best interests at heart.
Most senior scientists do care about the development and well-being of junior scientists. Many need help in remembering to act on it at the right moments. Generally, senior scientists are very smart people; once they have the “aha” moment about this, they are quick to act, and show better than average sustainability with their new behavior when it is supported.
What Not to Do
What are the more typical mistakes made when attempting to influence this?
The most common error is to see the problem as rooted in a shared personality characteristic of senior scientists. The thinking is that, as a breed, they are unusually difficult and rough, and that frequent Demoralizing Events is “the price we have to pay” to have them around. When the damage adds up to a critical point, the senior scientist gets reprimanded or lectured, and hopefully curtails the behavior for a while.
The second most common error is to diagnose the problem as being about communication skills. Issues of communication style are common, but can only be addressed successfully if the scientist’s allegiances are aligned appropriately. Far too many efforts to coach senior scientists address style at the outset.
When this happens, most senior scientists intuitively know that work on communications skills isn’t what they need first, and will simply dismiss the coach’s efforts. They think, “Why improve skills that won’t be useful?”. Coaches, in turn, dismiss this as “resistance” with an interpretation that the scientist just doesn’t want to change. There can be a lot of knowing smiles and shrugging of shoulders exchanged with HR staff that are equally certain in their diagnosis. I’ve had a couple of HR roles in my career, and made similar errors more times than I care to think about.
Setting the Table
On a broader scale, science-based organizations can help themselves by using these allegiances as lenses as they hire and promote. This reduces the number of senior scientists that need “performance corrections” and makes for an easier creation of a healthy, vibrant learning culture.
Most important is to provide support for Developmental behavior. This includes appreciating the “natural mentors” in all the ways that organizations can (but in a measured manner that won’t feel over-the-top, manufactured, or inauthentic to the scientists). It also includes appreciation for those who have done the hard work of making a switch to focus on the sixth allegiance when it didn’t come easy or quickly.