There is a huge body of scientific evidence that happy team members produce better results. However, the majority of PhD students and postdocs is stressed by peer pressure, high demands by their supervisors, potentially insufficient supervision and a high degree of uncertainty about their future career. Is it better to make them all happy?
General happiness is not a realistic goal
It is not the goal of the group leader to make everybody happy. To positively influence the feelings of the group members is a very demanding task since their emotions change on a daily basis – sometimes even several times during the day. Firstly, every group member comes to the work place with his/her own psychological constitution and current emotional state (from being freshly in love to being severely ill). This is mostly out of the control of the group leader and the colleagues. Secondly, in every group there are always conflicting interests for example about the fair distribution of technician’s time, consumables, infrastructure, instruments, authorships and direct support among many others. Thus, general happiness is not a realistic goal. Instead, most successful group leaders aim for a balance between a healthy team spirit and ambitious but realistic output goals. To reach this aim, every group leader must carefully define what he/she defines as “success in science”. Read more here: Potential indicators of “success in science”. This is crucial to communicate these goals clearly to the team.
Unhappy group members are bad for the team spirit and productivity
There is good evidence that a supportive environment which gives the team members the feeling of being valued is more productive than an environment which devaluates the employees. Devaluated group members may end up as a “quit-stay”. A quit-stay is a young scientist who has mentally quit his/her job but who stays to finish the PhD or postdoc period (inner resignation). Inner resignation is bad for the group because these group members are not productive – something that will be noticed and acted upon eventually or ignored until the end of the contract. Under both circumstances the young scientist, the peers as well as the group leader will be frustrated and the productivity will suffer.
Behaviour patterns of unhappy group members
Typical behaviour patterns of quit-stays and mentally resigned people are massive procrastination including overpreparation of projects (instead of doing them), extensive discussions about potential pitfalls of important activities (analysis paralysis), massive activity in unrelated side-activities which do not contribute to the productivity of the group and emotional instability. All these behaviour patterns easily become chronic and quickly also impair the productivity of the other group members who are dependent on the work of this person. It is always a difficult decision whether this person can be coached or has to be let go.
In any case, group leaders have to take action and make the group member aware of his/her influence on the group and the effect on the specific project and the overall productivity. Often the psychological dynamics are pretty stable and a positive change takes considerable effort. The relatively fast turn-over of PhD students and postdocs can be advantageous because every new member of the group is a nice opportunity to positively influence the group spirit and change unproductive dynamics.
Coaching or letting go?
It can be devastating for the team spirit if one team member hates his/her job or is a quit-stay. As mentioned above inner resignation may be the result of devaluating group members. In this case, the group leader must reflect on his/her behaviour and maybe search for supervision. If a team member has given up or is simply at the wrong place (“I don’t want to work in the lab”) the group leader may not have many options. If a team member does not fit into the group and creates a lot of tension it may be better to let the person go instead of wasting many hours of coaching without effect. From personal experience I know that pressure is the one strategy that never works (maybe just for a very short period) because the group member will become defensive or aggressive. Similarly, if a team member is cognitively challenged by the task and does not show the capacity to learn the necessary skills the coaching options can be very limited. Also in these cases it is better to find a good arrangement and to help this person to find a better job elsewhere. This is not always easy because letting somebody go hurts the pride of this person and some persons may fight like lions for a job they hate just to protect their pride. Should you get into a situation where you are not a good fit for the group do not make this mistake and negotiate a good arrangement that promotes your career – and find a group where you are a good fit. Read more here: The most intelligent strategy to get hired in science.
Conflicts in the group
Conflicts are unavoidable. In principle, group leaders expect that group members solve their personal problems with each other without intervention by the PI. There are many possibilities for personal conflicts produced by working behaviours such as shouting at the phone in a shared office, bringing along children/dogs or problems with personal hygiene. These problems can severely damage the team spirit and reduce productivity. The group leader may be obliged to talk to the respective persons to find an acceptable solution for the whole team. Professional conflicts are associated with the distribution of resources, performance indicators such as author positions or rewards such as paid travel to scientific meetings in attractive touristic locations. In these cases the group leader is fully responsible for the effects of his/her attitudes and behaviours on the group. Thus, he/she may consciously or unconsciously create trust or paranoia.
The health of the work environment
A colleague of mine suggested that the “health” of a research group or a department can be easily identified by the way high performance of one member is perceived by the others. If a high impact publication produces excitement and honest congratulations these are symptoms of a healthy environment. If the reaction is characterized by jealousy and devaluating statements (“Such a loser gets a Nature paper”) this is a symptom of a pathologic environment.
Competitiveness and unethical behaviour
Some PIs follow the concept “the blood on the outside of my office door does not interest me”. They breed a very competitive environment and indirectly support unethical behaviour between the group members and destroy trust because the young scientists experience maximal uncertainty. They have to stay maximally cautious to intervene immediately when their rights are violated or questioned. They feel a permanent danger to be deceived. Typical reactions are either massive egotism, exaggerated competition, aggression and distrust or fatalism, depression and low self-esteem. Exaggerated competitiveness may induce a tunnel view and lead to scientific fraud to cope with it.
Being stressed by peer pressure
The PI consciously or unconsciously creates a specific environment defined by his/her values, presumptions and behaviours. The PI attracts a specific type of job candidates and selects specific new group members and may let others go. Therefore, members of research teams often take over the general culture of the research group and start to push the other members in a certain direction and create thereby strong group dynamics which may be productive or pathologic. If the pressure is high the young scientists feel first challenged and then quickly distressed.
Publish or perish
Publication pressure is very subjective. Depending on the environment it can feel like a small annoyance or life-threatening. Surprisingly, quite often young researchers are not aware that an academic career is not the only possibility to make a career in science. Read more here: Should I become a professor? Success rate 3 %!
In order to make a career in science it is not necessary to have Nature and Science papers – especially when you want to work in the non-academic world. It is your personal choice to work in a highly competitive environment! If you do not like it – get out of it! There may be a lot of peer pressure or pressure by the family or a spouse but long-term high performance in a job you hate is the perfect road to burn-out.
It is your personal choice to work in a highly competitive environment!
If you do not like it – get out of it!
If you perceive publication pressure as a small annoyance or even as an exciting challenge you easily can enjoy academic research. It is important to note that those researchers who publish in high impact journals on a regular basis are outliers – and the majority of scientists are by definition “average”. Read more here: I am just an average scientist – what can I do? This attitude helps a lot to handle the feelings of inferiority many researchers have when being confronted with science stars.
Pressure through high demands of supervisors
Supervisors should be ambitious to help young researchers to develop their talents and skills. When the supervisor has low ambition the young researchers will take over this attitude or become severely frustrated. In competitive environments the high demands of the supervisors can substantially impair the well-being and health of the young researchers. Excessive demands can be particularly devastating when the supervision is insufficient and the young researcher feels left alone. But again: it is your personal choice to stay in such an environment and it is your personal choice to accept any demand of your supervisor – or not. Often it is necessary to make clear where your limits are and many supervisors will accept that. Otherwise: get out of such a working environment to protect your well-being!
Going the extra-mile
For young researchers it is important to have a clear concept of “healthy ambition”. Healthy ambition is characterized by a passionate investment during good times and considerable self-discipline during bad times. Having the habit of doing always just 10% more than expected is an important psychological investment which produces much higher commitment. Spending 70 hours per week at work is not necessarily more productive than spending 40 hours. A strong focus on the “best work” can often produce better outcomes and allows the combination of a healthy family life with a successful scientific career.
Rewards and gratifications
There is much debate whether a forced “meritocratic” approach (only the best of the competitive crowd get the prize) or a “socialistic” approach (everybody gets the same) are ideal to produce high productivity. The meritocratic approach tends to breed competition and may easily create feelings of being treated unfairly because there are often considerable differences how a group leader evaluates the performance of a group member and how the peers evaluate this performance. The socialistic approach has the disadvantage that the group members quickly take the “prize” for granted and do not perceive it as a gratification for their performance. Thus, the reward loses its effect. Unexpected rewards have the highest impact, expected rewards are often not valued anymore.
There is no “one fits it all” solution and every research group has a different culture and a mix of the two approaches is necessary. Every week I have to learn again that it is easy to make mistakes when giving rewards and gratifications. 🙂
Trust and transparency
I am convinced that transparency and clear rules are among the most important elements to create trust. Young scientists should feel certainty that there are clear and valid agreements about working conditions, distribution of money and infrastructures as well as authorships. In cases of conflicts the group leader must be neutral and apply a predictable and known set of rules to avoid paranoia and the feeling of being treated unfairly in the group.
Creating a supportive and stimulating environment
To create a trustworthy working environment is challenging for most postdocs and young group leaders. Postdocs often need some time to learn a healthy balance between a friendly and trustworthy support on the one hand and a professional distance from the PhD students and technicians on the other. Many young group leaders still struggle with this challenge. Two typical extremes are either very strict and authoritarian control or a general laissez-faire attitude (letting everything happen to avoid conflicts and unpleasant talks with group members who are less productive or spread negative emotions). A training in leadership skills can be very helpful to find a healthy approach which has to be developed over several years.
Pressure or pleasure – what produces better science?
In conclusion, a healthy work environment which gives the team members the feeling of being valued is more productive than an environment which devaluates the employees. Ambitious but realistic goals of the group leader are important to motivate the group members and to develop their talents and skills. For young researchers a healthy approach may be to perform always 10% better than expected to produce substantially higher commitment and better outcomes. Exaggerated demands combined with insufficient supervision provoke burn-out or scientific fraud. Thus, “pleasure” produces better scientists and as a result better science than just massive “pressure”.
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