Top of the PI Wish List: Interpersonal Skills

Making sure people work well together isn't just the right thing to do. It's the moral thing to do.

By | February 1, 2007

When I worked in the lab I was lucky: My coworkers were generally agreeable and often became my close friends, and the lab heads, despite lacking any obvious training, applied plenty of common sense. We worked in a relaxed, low-pressure environment where the human interactions and group dynamics were never sorely tested. I dread to think how we would have coped with the higher stress levels of a competitive situation and a couple of obnoxious coworkers.

The examples in the feature by Kerry Grens give me some idea. Yelling, crying, bullying, skullduggery of all kinds, and an overriding sense of hostility are described. While these may be extreme examples, they are by no means unique. Surprise, surprise: No data are available. But anyone with experience knows that poor interpersonal relationships characterize many, many academic laboratories, and with researchers becoming more and more interdependent and increasingly cutthroat, things are only going to get worse.

Stereotyping notwithstanding, when it comes to management, researchers are highly skeptical if not outright hostile. In their book, Lab Dynamics: Management Skills for Scientists, Carl and Suzanne Cohen write: "Among scientists in all fields of specialization is a strongly held belief that if you just get the science right, everything else will fall into place or become irrelevant."1 It's a straightforward case of intellectual snobbery.

Unfortunately, this attitude doesn't square with studies of the NASA space program2 or the chemical industry,3 where human interaction and communication have been shown to be key factors in success. Is academic research so different from these pursuits that team skills and people management don't matter? That's hard to imagine. Still, we need relevant data before the problem of lab behavior is fully out of the closet.

If poor interpersonal relationships in the lab are found to be hindering progress, then addressing the problem becomes a moral obligation. The general public and the charities that support so much research have every right to demand that use of their funding be optimized.

Such a finding would require that researchers with managerial responsibilities be trained. Their ability to run a harmonious research group would become a factor in performance appraisal. And, academic institutions would need to factor interpersonal skills into hiring decisions.

For those who come to their management skills instinctively, productive cultures come naturally. It is no surprise that outstanding researchers such as JoAnne Stubbe (see profile here) are credited with being great managers and mentors. Others need training. It is encouraging to read in Grens' feature that this is being provided in progressive institutions. The Carnegie Institution, profiled in this article, provides another example of a supportive yet highly intellectually challenging environment.

Every lab worker would feel the impact of improved managerial skills to some degree ? especially the thousands laboring in abject misery, or worse, thinking about quitting research altogether.

One way forward is to communicate. If you have a tale of lab woe to tell, or better, a story of resolution and enrichment to share, please write to


1. C.M. Cohen, S.L. Cohen, Lab Dynamics: Management Skills for Scientists, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2005. 2. D. Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture and Deviance at NASA, University of Chicago Press, 1996. 3. C. Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies, 3rd ed., Princeton University Press, 1999.


Avatar of: Mentorless


Posts: 2

March 6, 2007

PIs' real wish list (in order):\n\n1. More money: higher PI salary, larger research budget.\n2. More lab space: more slaves & prestige (for more papers/money; see #1).\n3. Fewer course responsibilities: interfere with career.\n4. More admin/sec support: papers, grants, & patents (i.e., more career support; see #1;).\n5. More PI prizes (i.e., career support).\n6. Less stringent conflict of interest regulations (see #1).\n7. Less stringent peer-review of my papers.\n8. Larger funding agency budgets (see #1).\n9. Doctoral candidates with more extensive research experience (training a career drag).\n10. More journal editor friends.\n11. Larger consult fee (i.e., more papers, awards, etc.; see #1: salary).\n12. NAS election (see #1, 11).\n13. More journal editorial board positions.\n14. Larger Tech. Lic. office (see #1).\n15. Funding agency advisory board appointment.\n16. More company director appointments (w/ comp.; see #1, 11).\n17. Better-looking flight attendants.\n18. Better air-flight menus.\n19. Fewer scrupulous trainees, everywhere.\n20. Fewer trainees expecting career advancement (career interference and/or drag).\n21. More-cunning Nobel laureates & NAS members (exposed fraudsters lower award value; see #1, 11, 12).\n22. Larger housing subsidy.\n23. Easier institution-inst. grant transfers.\n24. More difficult inst.-inst. doctoral reqs. transfers.\n24. A REAL lab supply & equipment (incl. liquids) moving company.\n25. Special pay scale for lab manager-PI_spouses.\n26. Fewer safety and responsible-conduct-in-research regs. and seminars; Elimination of ORI (see #1, 8, 21).\n27. State stem cell research initiative (see #1).\n28. State my-area-of-reseach initiative (see #1).\n29. Fewer more-witty trainees.\n30. Fewer reagent requests.\n31. Elimination of ATCC & IMSR (embarassing for non-submitters).\n32. More time for career.
Avatar of: Mentorless


Posts: 2

March 10, 2007

34. Dept. Chairmanship (see #1, 2, 3, 4).\n35. #34 w/out sacrificing HHMI position.\n36. Elimination of HHMI extracurricular activities regs. (see #6).\n37. Allow posting signs in Med Schl, "MD FREE if earn PhD (also free) in my lab." (see #4, 9)\n38. Better parking (closer, covered).\n39. Free parking.\n40. More-stupid Dept. Chair.\n41. Trainees who embrace my personal questions (see #19).\n42. Trainees who embrace my suggestions to date competitors' trainees (see #19).\n43. More butt-sucking trainee/informants (need to know personal & prof. details of everyone; see #19).\n44. Trainees who spread my rumors (see #19).\n45. Private toilet.\n46. Bigger office.\n47. Beter Dept. coffee.\n48. Free Dept. coffee.\n49. More comfortable chair.\n50. Worship I deserve.

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