Does "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" describe your conflict resolution strategy? Douglas Kalish described a more effective tactic in his recent seminar.
Conscientious, driven, and introverted. Sound familiar? How about dominant, arrogant, self-confident, or hostile? Like it or not, these traits are relatively common among those at the top of the highly competitive field of scientific research, according to GJ Feist and ME Gorman (PDF, 3.93 MB). It's no surprise then that when conflicts arise in the workplace, we scientists may find them challenging to handle. We all encounter difficult people and tricky situations at some point in our careers, and, as scientists, these issues can be magnified by our own personality traits and those of our peers. Unfortunately, while we may be experts in our chosen fields, most of us have received virtually no training in managing people or functioning as part of a team.
The situation is not hopeless, however. Even the most introverted and socially inept scientists can learn to resolve conflicts and navigate their way through difficult situations, according to Douglas Kalish. And he should know. With a PhD in biology from Harvard and more than 30 years of management experience, Kalish has advised the information technology and biotechnology industries on a range of issues, from knowledge and content management to collaboration and conflict resolution, and he is a visiting scholar in the Management of Technology program at UC–Berkeley's Haas School of Business.
Relationship skills for scientists
In his lively seminars, Kalish highlights various situations that scientists often find particularly tricky—disagreeing productively over science, dealing with obnoxious or competitive colleagues, resolving arguments over space and equipment—to name but a few. All of these uncomfortable scenarios involve interacting with others in ways that stir up emotions and elicit instinctual "fight or flight" responses, leading to confrontation, avoidance, and unproductive outcomes.
But, as scientists, why should we care about conflict resolution? After all, aren't the most crucial determinants of our scientific success how clever we are and how much science we have mastered? Not according to Kalish, who points out that being an effective researcher requires more than an ability to do good science. Emotional situations are a fact of life and attempting to avoid them is futile. Rather, learning to cope with thorny situations and teaching those skills to others are the best way to cultivate a happy and productive work environment.
Agree, empathize, and inquire
Basing much of his advice on materials developed by Drs. Carl and Suzanne Cohen, Kalish emphasizes three key actions for dealing successfully with difficult people: agree, empathize, and inquire. To disarm a hostile or angry person, you must first establish a rapport by finding some aspect of their issue with which you actually agree. For example, say a colleague berates you thus, "This experiment you did was poorly designed, and the results are useless. You're a parasite on this project." Instead of lashing out at the person, try to gauge why he or she is frustrated. You might initiate a productive discussion by responding, "I agree this wasn't the best experiment I ever did." Or, instead of telling the person that he or she is wrong (and an idiot), try: "I see things a bit differently." Try to use the person's name and maintain eye contact so as not to appear evasive.
To disarm a hostile or angry person, first establish a rapport.
Next, empathize. In resolving a conflict, it's important that your colleague realizes that you understand what he or she is telling you (e.g., "It sounds like you're pretty upset with me."). Kalish suggests using "positive body language," such as nodding, and "mirroring"—for example, by repeating some of the person's words. Tempers can often be cooled by seeking common ground and showing the person that you've received and considered their message. Then a productive exchange can proceed.
Finally, inquire. Ask questions to clarify the situation and guide the discussion away from confrontation toward information gathering (e.g., "Can you tell me what I did that was so upsetting?"). This protocol—agree, empathize, and inquire—can be put to use not only on colleagues who are angry and hostile, but also works well with complainers, argumentative, and passive-aggressive people.
I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore
But what about that natural instinct to stick up for yourself and fight back? According to Kalish, this is the worst thing you can do if your goal is to successfully resolve the conflict. Sure, it may make you feel better in the moment. But it won't promote a productive solution and will likely lead to an escalation of the conflict. Which is not to say you should stand there and accept a torrent of abuse. Instead, try suggesting a time-out, so that all parties can cool off and regain their composure. Indeed, retaining control of your own behavior is key; therefore, time-outs are also a useful strategy if you feel you're about to lose it.
In addition to an assortment of peer conflict situations (the equipment hog, the noisy lab mate, the reagent-, idea-, credit-thief), Kalish presents a host of difficult scenarios encountered in the lab environment—performance problems, toxic lab meetings, Principal Investigator (PI) issues—along with practical advice on how to manage them. In each situation, Kalish suggests the key is to focus on the issue and not the person. Use "I" statements instead of "you" statements; for example, instead of saying, "You always leave this equipment in a complete mess," you could try, "I'm very frustrated from having to clean up this equipment every day." Try to find shared objectives and suggest potential solutions and alternative behaviors, rather that simply pointing out people's faults.
Managing your mentor
Kalish also offers salient advice on managing your mentor, including tips on how best to disagree with your PI. Again, finding some element on which to agree and empathize is central. From there, guide the conversation toward the things you don't agree on, and involve your mentor in formulating a new solution. In doing so, Kalish suggests, you'll find it easier to express your alternative view in a way that is collaborative rather than argumentative. Ultimately, understanding what motivates your mentor and figuring out how your goals meld with his or hers are the most effective ways to achieve a successful relationship.
Heed the advice of Joseph Joubert: "Never cut what you can untie."
Inevitably, there will be instances when no degree of mentor management can cure an ailing relationship. Hard times call for tough decisions, and if you're in a situation that is not mutually beneficial, divorcing your PI may be the best solution. In this case, Kalish advocates seeking help from the department and your new mentor. However, try not to burn your bridges. The science world is small; if possible, it's always best to leave on good terms. Heed the advice of French moralist Joseph Joubert: "Never cut what you can untie."
In closing, Kalish highlights the disparities between academia and industry. Reminding participants that many will not find or seek jobs in academia, he emphasizes that understanding how to work as part of a team is essential to survival in the business world. Unlike basic research, product research and development is fiercely competitive and driven by profits. In business, says Kalish, you must be "collaborative internally, but competitive externally".
It is clear that Kalish understands the issues and conflicts that arise in the lab environment; most of the mock scenarios he describes would be met with knowing nods, and his advice is eagerly sought by diverse scientists on a wide range of issues. However, science trainees might feel that some highly inflammatory situations can be too provocative for the participants to heed Kalish's "agree, empathize, and inquire" strategy. Indeed, who wouldn't find it challenging to muster up a smile and find something to agree on with someone who is labeling you a parasite?
Other young scientists stressed that they are concerned that more senior colleagues who witness the altercation might view them negatively if they fail to defend themselves and fight back; they would, perhaps, rather save face than deal productively with the issue. Nevertheless, Kalish feels strongly that, while it is natural to want to defend oneself, it is not in one's best interest to make the argument about whether or not you're a parasite. In such heated situations, argues Kalish, a little savvy behavior can go a long way in achieving a mutually beneficial outcome.
Dale Cameron, PhD is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco. Inspired by his love of beer and vegemite, and his quest for eternal youth, he uses yeast to study proteins associated with aging-related diseases.
Copyright 2009-2016, Douglas Kalish. All rights reserved.