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."
Unfortunately, this attitude doesn't square with studies of the NASA space program
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 email@example.com.