On Scientists (and Other Skeptics)

Skeptical, and I Mean that in a Good Way

We’re often skeptical about dipping into the soft sciences from which coaching derives, since experiments in that realm will not reach hard-science standards.  Nonetheless, we can turn our investigative skills, without dialing them back, to people, behaviors, motivations, and interactions.  It’s possible to formulate hypotheses and make experimental observations about yourself and others.  Our natural way of investigating is a real strength here, especially if we can employ openness, humility, and curiosity.

I’m a scientist and skeptic myself, and it’s been quite a ride exploring the human side of the equation.  It’s fascinating to me.  Think of me as your ally in exploring this territory, someone who’s diligently researched the area and gained some insights that score well on the Scientist’s BS Meter.  Looking back on my time as a practicing scientist and leader, I would have greatly benefited from having such a person in my corner.  Could you use someone like that?

We're Not Making Widgets

Yes, and …?

While not wishing to overgeneralize, we scientists want to know how things work, and we love being the ones to figure it out.  To do this, we often to rely on certain strengths:  curiosity, logic, objectivity, discernment, diligence, focus, and tenacity, to name a few.  We look deeply, and we’re often quite self-reliant and solo-oriented while we’re looking. 

These are great strengths, yet they may lead to tension and conflict in a results-oriented world.  We’re not just churning out widgets.  Here’s Alice Sapienza, author of Managing Scientists:

"This combination of science, an oblique and unpredictable activity, and scientists, highly trained solo contributors who are also human beings, is notoriously hard to lead well. Striking the right balance between, first, the freedom, ambiguity, and challenge necessary to foster creativity and, second, the constraints necessary for producing results within time, cost, and perhaps commercial objectives is fraught with problems. Few are able to strike that balance without making painful mistakes."

This may sound awful and not in our job description, yet we must face it.  What to do?   

It is my view that scientists have all the strengths they need to thrive and contribute effectively in nearly any context; it’s just that some of these strengths are underused, undervalued, unrecognized, or mistrusted.  In my experience, scientists can use their superpowers to explore this new territory with great effect.  What tools (strengths) do you or your colleagues use so often they’re worn to a nice patina, and which are lying on the workbench, a bit dusty?  How is that working?  Which tools might be good to pick up more often, and how does one do that?  I can help you explore this.  We might even use a flashlight to look under the workbench.  You’ll find that your strengths as a scientist will be very useful in exploring this territory and making small shifts that are really effective.

Osmosis: Our Default Leadership Training

“I have a way of running my group, but I’m not sure where it came from.  Probably from my Ph.D. and postdoc advisors, but I haven’t thought much about it; I just do it.  You’ve got me wondering:  they were great scientists, but ...” 

While we’re putting in our ten thousand hours, working diligently to become experts in our fields, we’re also learning to manage people, though seldom explicitly.  Instead, we often learn it osmotically, taking on the management style of our scientific mentors, who got their styles from their mentors.  No matter how amazing our mentors are as scientists, it’s rarely the case that they’re fabulous models for leading people, especially beyond the halls of academe.  As you have probably seen in others, if not in yourself, there can be consequences.  Would you be willing to take a look at this with me and purposely forge your own positive leadership style?

The Culture of Science Doesn’t Help

In our training and our scientific activities, we often develop frameworks and vocabularies that can separate us from each other.  Whether by necessity or culture, we often operate as solo contributors.  This can make it hard to get teams to work well together, especially when they’re multidisciplinary.  Further, there is often a competitive subtext, e.g., “I worked really hard for this result, and I want to make sure everyone knows who is responsible for it.”   Let’s explore this; small changes will make large differences.