Research Group Therapy – Part 1

When the lecturer gets the tough questions..!

I’d like to think that my teaching style allows students to ask questions. Normally the answers are easy, but one of my post-grad classes asked me a question that really got me thinking: “How do we find better working relationships between ourselves and other members of a research group? ” And, like a good experiment, the answer left me with more questions!

So, I had to split my original post into four separate ones. In the first part (this one) I outline my ideas behind relationships and the crucial role they play in a research environment. Part 2 is a summary of my own experiences and struggles over the last 30 years, specifically looking at issues like ‘gladiatorial’ research meetings and ‘toughen up’ advice . Part 3 looks at what – in my opinion – are the exciting new developments in emotional health and wellbeing. Part 4 will be some thoughts on cross-cultural working relationships.

A quick caveat!

One issue that is important (to me at least) is that these posts are not seen as a criticism of any person, group or organisation. There are several reasons for this. The first is that I’m posting my experiences and thoughts because I hope that in sharing them others will feel less isolated in the struggles they face. Secondly, the reflections that I have are a culmination of experiences over several years (decades even) with different individuals and groups in various situations, both inside and outside the lab (often what I learn about relationships in a community setting has relavence to the lab). Finally, and to really mix the grammatical tumblers on the Engima machine of this blog(!), where I use the term ‘I’ it refers to my opinion, viewpoint, my personal experience or a story that was related to me by someone else, but in which I have assumed the central role to protect the informal confidentiality around the original discussion.

The value of relationships.

In their book, The R-Factor, Lee and Schluter propose that relationships are central to human life for two key reasons. Firstly, we all live in the context of relationships: even when we spend time alone, we still come back to a network of connections that provides us with the stuff of life (food, drink etc). Secondly, the most valuable aspect of our lives are the relationships around us: materialism is not just the accumulation of ‘stuff’, but the impact that ‘stuff’ will have on the people around us (envy, status etc). So, most (but not all) of us value relationships above possessions, finances and activities. Many of us pursue a career because of relationships we have at work (maybe great colleagues) or as part of a relational social structure (our friends have jobs like ours). Paradoxically, many modern working environments prioritise achievement (better sales, productivity, grant funding etc), rather than relationships, and require staff to focus on those ‘targets’ as their primary goal. However, when preserving and building good, productive relationships becomes a secondary concern they can easily be neglected. Eventually, ‘poor relationships’ becomes the ‘culture’ of the organisation, despite the evidence that strong relationships help groups become more effective. For example, this DOH report and the pitfalls of ‘cognitive dissonance’ (discussed recently as the UK public comes to terms with the Chilcot Report into the invasion of Iraq in 2003).

Relationships even become a surrogate for other complaints. Ask yourself this: when you have a conversation with someone who is grumbling about some aspect of work, how often does the complaint centre upon other people (ie the relationship, or lack of) and not the processes, structure or procedure? Even in conversations I’ve had about ‘new regulations’, the criticism is not directed towards ‘the words’, but at the regulators who devised the words, or those who enforce them.

I’ve come to the conclusion that relationships are  a pretty important part of the foundation on which we work, and – as with all foundations – usually goes unnoticed until the walls above begin to crack and warp.

There are two aspects that I see to improving working relationships: firstly it’s important to understand how research teams are structured and motivated; and secondly, it’s important to try and ‘walk in someone else lab coat’ and understanding how another researcher views the world and their place in it. I’m hoping these posts will provide insight into both.

O-mission statements

I think that understanding the culture of organisations is harder than it was, because in I find that they now portray themselves as they ‘want to be seen’, not as they are, and as spending cuts slice away resources, they are less able to match their stated ideals (given in the ‘glossy brochures’ with smiling pictures and pithy mission statements) when things go wrong.

In a new situation (work, school, social club…) we instinctively base our understanding on the information available, which includes the aspirational (or in some cases utopian) ‘mission statements’. But, when it starts to get tough (and does in any arena of life), we have the rug pulled from under our feet when a new, previously unmentioned, framework is revealed and we crash to the floor. As we stare at the ceiling we can have a variety of responses, perhaps becoming dis-engaged, cynical or self-critical. Picking yourself up can be hard work both mentally and emotionally.

‘Mission statements’ are written in subjective language that make quantitative analysis difficult, and they are often open to wide interpretation: they both paint a idealistic vision (and to be honest who wants a mission statement that doesn’t inspire a better picture of the future) but contain little of substance. Organisations use this interpretive wriggle room rather like our politicians who fail to deliver their manifesto promises, and at it’s lowest level this can lead to a response of ‘You didn’t actually believe that did you?’.

And research groups?

Back to understanding the motivation behind scientists: what does the academic ‘ivory tower’ look like? Science in general, and especially academia, attracts people who are inspired, focused and driven by solving particularly difficult problems. It’s rare for someone to say they want to go into science if because they see themselves as ‘a people person’. They need to be committed to the process: it could take a decade (at best) to go through the graduate, post-grad and post-doc training before getting an academic post. What does modern science tell us about how to get ‘ahead’? By meeting funding and publication targets. Being good with people is a bonus…just not one that counts. There’s room in science at the top for ‘nice folks’: just nice and successful ones!

As I said, this focus sets a culture, and that culture shows scientists how to succeed: hard work, long hours, focused drive on problem solving, high impact science published in high citation factor journals. Doesn’t sound very ‘relational’. Despite this, I’ve found most academics care about their research teams and actively seek the best opportunities for their researchers and students. On the other hand I’ve also spoken to enough young scientists over the years who would say the opposite.

Collaboration and relativity.

Collaboration is a key part of modern science, and relationships are a key part of collaboration. Think of a car: I have a set of wheels and another researcher has an engine – it’s pretty boring if we stay separate, but by working together we actually go somewhere. Even Einstein – famous of having developed the ‘special’ theory of relativity on his own while working as a patent clerk – relied on collaborators to help him unpack the maths needed to make sense of his expanded ‘general’ theory of relativity. But because collaborations are built of the same stuff as relationships, they need to be managed in the same way, so our new ‘car’ can run on a straight and smooth surface, and not get bogged down in a quagmire of muddy confusion and heartache.

Final thought.

Now that I’m approaching 50, and having dropped out of ‘main stream’ science to prioritise the ‘relationships’ in other parts of my life, I can see how poor I was at creating a culture of effective working relationships. Managing a team takes time: and there’s less of it now than there was three decades ago. On top of that, modern science isn’t ‘relational’, but modern scientists can be. While modern science is focused on performance, modern scientists are diverse, coming from a range of backgrounds and cultures. So if you and ‘science’ aren’t getting on too well, thats OK, you’re not alone in that feeling (see part 2). On the up side it might be time to learn some new skills (see part 3).




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