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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