September 2013

How to compete with a lab diva

We all know them — research minions, professor’s pets, lab divas — those bench mates who seem to get all the attention and resources even though you are just as talented as they are. They often exhibit selfish behavior (e.g., leave common lab spaces messy, use up lab supplies, etc.), and for some reason, the principal investigator seems to reward them for this science superstar attitude, creating a perception of lab favoritism among team members.
 
I have encountered this behavior in numerous labs throughout my own research-training years. One incident involved a researcher who threw a diva-quality temper tantrum over a window shade. I was troubleshooting the installation of DNA analysis software on a shared lab computer located in her office, and I had to close the shade partially because the morning sun was blinding me. She instantly freaked out, ranting some nonsense about not receiving enough light, and demanded an immediate solution to the furniture arrangement in the room. Instead of offering any assistance with the software, our PI jumped to her command and devoted the rest of his day to locating a new desk while the software remained inoperative for the entire lab.
 
I have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on such diva encounters: Why do people get rewarded for this behavior? And why do hardworking team players never seem to get ahead in a research world dominated by lab divas? Upon reflection, I have identified five key characteristics that researchers need to adopt to compete in a work environment overrun with lab divas:

  1. 1. As my PI friend once explained to me, those who yell the loudest get what they want, so be more assertive and communicate clearly with your research supervisor about the resources you need to get your projects done.
  2. 2. Learn to have more self-confidence, and understand that your career and projects are just as important as your bench mates’ (not to mention that your projects are just as important to your research adviser, whose career depends on the productivity of every lab member).
  3. 3. Stop cleaning up other people’s messes all the time and focus your energy on your own projects. If needed, carve out a spot for yourself in the lab and keep your supplies separated.
  4. 4. Develop the foresight to evaluate your projects for career-advancement potential based on the highest return for your time investment (e.g., number of publications, patents, etc.).
  5. 5. Evaluate other people’s agendas for asking you for help and avoid helping them if the benefits to you are negligible. Likewise, if you need assistance on a project, make sure to show that the request will genuinely benefit the other person too.

While these tips will help give you a competitive advantage, don’t put on that rhinestone-studded lab coat and strut around like a research rock star quite yet.
 
Science relies on collaboration to solve problems; thus, PIs really should focus on promoting the whole team, especially team players (like you and me) who want to see every person and project in the lab succeed.
 
To get some advice from a real management expert, I contacted Bruce Kasanoff, managing director of Now Possible, a consulting and training firm that helps companies be more humane to both customers and employees.
 
In a recent article, “How to Get Ahead: Lie, Cheat and Steal,” featured on the LinkedIn Influencer program, Kasanoff reprimands employers for promoting takers over givers within management structures. (Takers are people who care about only their own needs, while givers put the needs of others in the spotlight.)
 
Kasanoff says that companies are making stupid decisions by putting takers in charge when givers are the people who sincerely care about the future success of the company and its customers. To put this in perspective for research purposes, the company would be the laboratory, and the customers would be the research sponsors who fund the projects.
 
In an interview, Kasanoff provided the invaluable insight that “the most successful people are givers with enlightened self-interest, which means that they also have personal goals but they believe the best way to reach these goals is by helping others.” However, he warns that givers must be “clear, focused and persistent” to outcompete the takers, who tend to be highly driven in taking care of their own priorities. He says that givers can sometimes be unfocused because of their desire just to be helpful in general; therefore, his personal motto in life and advice to other givers is to “be generous and expert, trustworthy and clear, open-minded and adaptable, persistent and present.”
 
To avoid workplace favoritism, Kasanoff recommends that supervisors present all employees with equal opportunities instead of equal treatment: “In the end, supervisors have to buy into the concept that diversity creates strength, and I don’t just mean racial or ethnic diversity; I mean all the things that make us different.”
 
Every person has unique needs (e.g., communication style or career goals) that should be identified and addressed to ensure each researcher will develop into the most successful scientist possible.

Donna KridelbaughDonna Kridelbaugh (donna.kridelbaugh@gmail.com) is on a journey of self-mentoring to explore alternative science careers with a strong desire to share this step-by-step information with other scientists. Learn more about her Science Mentor blog project at about.me/science_mentor.

 

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8 Comments

  • --Karla Funk wrote: "Interesting article ("relatable" springs to mind) with skills, largely political, transferrable to other industries. Another way of evaluating such situations, particularly with respect to #5, might be the application of enlightened self-interest, with the knowledge that some choices may not show an obvious, short-term payoff, but rather an investment with acceptable risk for long-term good. Aka, paying it forward . . .

    I, for one, am looking forward to following your continued endeavours."

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    @Karla, thanks for the feedback on the article! I completely agree that people should help others despite any personal agenda that is readily foreseeable. But I think people like us who enjoy helping others are often subconsciously manipulated into helping these lab-diva types who are only interested in helping themselves. I want to point out that #5 is case-specific when dealing with these type of people (definitely not a general rule-of-thumb!)

  • --Spiros Vlahopoulos wrote: "Indeed, it is a very important article. It is striking that many "lab divas" often get away with working 0. I have seen many cases of persons screaming their way up, while messing others' work and balance. Indeed, if all attempts to restore balance fail, the only way to survive is to be efficient in identifying a new sponsor."--

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    @Spiros, isn't it frustrating? And often these lab divas definitely do not have the most pleasant "screaming" voice. I have done exactly what you suggest - sometimes it is best to leave that environment and seek out a supervisor that promotes the whole team!

  • --Mr. PMnS wrote: "An interesting piece. I would suggest that another important thing to ask oneself is "what do I uniquely bring to the project?" If ones contribution is unique and of the highest priority to the project at hand then surely it makes sense to give the high contributing high value coworkers the resources to be most effective. It is the old 80/20 rule; 80% of the aggrevation is caused by 20% of the people. But also 80% of the value of a project is often contributed by 20% of the people. Rather than focus on the negatives of the trouble makers a good PI should identify the high performers and maximize their effectiveness. As an individual if one can one should try to be in that 20% high value group and (in the nicest possible way) communicate your worth to the PI. If the PI still doesn't get it than one should consider taking ones talents to somewhere where they will be appreciated."--

    ----------

    @Mr. PMnS, thanks for the invaluable lesson in self-promotion. Yes, I agree that one needs to find their niche and focus on bringing those strengths to the lab bench for a team project. High performers need to be identified and rewarded to acknowledge their contributions. Everyone needs to find a good team where they are valued.

    However, I would encourage you to think about the other 80%. For example, are some of the 20% so successful because they are avoiding helping with lab maintenance or other required activities, so they have more time to work on research? Or why are these other 80% not performing to expectations? Do they have the resources they need or the proper mentorship to improve? I have a big problem with talent management programs that only focus on the rockstars because these people may succeed no matter what. It is that "other" portion of the team that may need a little extra support to overcome whatever obstacles are present in their lives to become the best scientists (or insert whatever career choice)

  • Interesting article ("relatable" springs to mind) with skills, largely political, transferrable to other industries. Another way of evaluating such situations, particularly with respect to #5, might be the application of enlightened self-interest, with the knowledge that some choices may not show an obvious, short-term payoff, but rather an investment with acceptable risk for long-term good. Aka, paying it forward . . .

    I, for one, am looking forward to following your continued endeavours.

  • --Emilie Breteuil wrote: "Having more confidence... That one doesn't work for those of us who got into this field because we are comfortable in the lab, but not with people. I find it physically uncomfortable to speak to a person like that speaks a lot and I don't think faking it will help. My lab manager is excellent, though. And so I don't have to worry about my other colleagues bullying me. But, I can never leave this lab for fear of joining into a place as poorly managed as these other labs sound."--

    --------
    @Emilie, I am so glad that you are working in a such a supportive work environment! You raise a very valid point that some scientists may be more introverted in nature and have a difficult time with communications (hence the desire to hide in a lab!) But with practice, you can definitely overcome these speaking fears. There are community groups (e.g., Toastmasters International) where you can practice presentation skills or you can create your own professional support group at work to practice giving presentations and/or negotiating difficult conversations, interview skills, etc.

    Please do not fear change based on experiences that you hear because you need to grow professionally. Before joining another lab, it is important to fully interact with your future supervisor during the interview process and also ask the other lab members in private about the work environment and the supervisor's management style. I have previously checked references on a potential boss by calling people with whom the person had worked to see what they had to say about the person's leadership style.

  • Indeed, it is a very important article.
    It is striking that many "lab divas" often get away with working 0.
    I have seen many cases of persons screaming their way up, while messing others' work and balance.
    Indeed, if all attempts to restore balance fail, the only way to survive is to be efficient in identifying a new sponsor.

  • An interesting piece. I would suggest that another important thing to ask oneself is "what do I uniquely bring to the project?" If ones contribution is unique and of the highest priority to the project at hand then surely it makes sense to give the high contributing high value coworkers the resources to be most effective. It is the old 80/20 rule; 80% of the aggrevation is caused by 20% of the people. But also 80% of the value of a project is often contributed by 20% of the people. Rather than focus on the negatives of the trouble makers a good PI should identify the high performers and maximize their effectiveness. As an individual if one can one should try to be in that 20% high value group and (in the nicest possible way) communicate your worth to the PI. If the PI still doesn't get it than one should consider taking ones talents to somewhere where they will be appreciated.

  • Having more confidence... That one doesn't work for those of us who got into this field because we are comfortable in the lab, but not with people. I find it physically uncomfortable to speak to a person like that speaks a lot and I don't think faking it will help. My lab manager is excellent, though. And so I don't have to worry about my other colleagues bullying me. But, I can never leave this lab for fear of joining into a place as poorly managed as these other labs sound.

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