People for Scientists

By | February 21, 2015

People for Scientists

There’s more than a small amount of truth in the stereotype that scientists aren’t very good with people. But does it have to be this way? Maybe some people find it all very easy, but if your anything like me you’ll find other people something of a mystery.

Over the years I’ve stumbled across a few books that have really helped me understand other people better. I’m sure what I’ve learned can help my science.

Science is a Contact Sport

The stereotype is that scientists are locked away from other people, and human interaction. They don’t have the skill, mentality or inclination to ‘deal with people’. But think about it. Are we really that cut off from human interactions, and the problems that always exist at the boundaries between people and groups?

Let’s stop and think about just a few of the things a scientist might come across in his or her work day:

Maybe we want to negotiate some time on a particular piece of equipment, or perhaps
we seem to always be the guy who gets lumped with menial maintanence tasks, when
really we want to say “No, I’d rather not do it this time, thank you”. Or it could be that you’re hoping to build up a potential collaboration with colleague at a conference, but aren’t sure how to ingratiate yourself with him. Maybe you feel that your contribution to a paper deserves more recognition that it has been given.

And that’s without really getting into the politics within research groups, between research groups, and perhaps the big one: between research staff and university administrators.

Each one of these problems is a potential source of stress, worry, and inefficiency.

So given all that, why does it seem that we don’t take ‘people skills’ seriously. Science is a contact sport, and we should really start to learn the rules.

Avoiding Management Speak

I think part of the problem is that science and and its scientists shun any hint of management speak, salesmanship or percieved charlatan behaviour. Indeed, the Royal Society’s motto of [translated] “take nobody’s word for it” encourages us to be very skeptical of anything other than hard evidence.

For the most part this is right, and make sense. But I think at best it can make us inefficient as we struggle through our work relationships, and at worst leaves us open and vulnerable to those who do know how to get what they want, through bullying, coercion or manipulation.

The sheer volume of literature on dealing with friction between people must surely be some kind of indicator that this is a universal problem. Unfortunately much of this literature is pitched at the salesman, the manager or the would-be business tycoon. Hardly language that is going to win over many scientists any time soon.

Self-help Books – Anathema for Scientists

I know ‘self-help’ books, management speak, and anything that feels like business talk is anathema to many scientists – and unless I concentrate, it is for me too. But I do think it is worth a try. From a work output point of view it could help by making meetings more productive and collaborations stronger. But more than that it could help reduce stress and improve job satisfaction when we don’t feel completely steam rollered by a ‘people problem’.

I think we owe it to ourselves to give dealing with people a go. Just as we’re not born knowing how to carry out experiments and write papers, there’s no reason to assume we’re going to know how to deal with people without learning. We’re meant to be clever people – so why not put it to good use.

Some Recommended Reading

I’ve found these few books to be particularly useful in trying to figure out people (and myself for that matter). In dealing with people and relationships, every person’s experience will be very different, so your mileage may very, but do give them a go if you can. Most of them are ‘classics’ that you can pick up cheaply online or in second-hand book shops.

None of them is a panacea, but they offer a few insights that you might you can learn from and put to good use.

When I Say No I Feel Guilty

This book tries to offer solutions for those situations when you leave a meeting or conversation and say to yourself “Why did I agree to that?, I knew I didn’t really want to do it”.

This classic text on assertiveness shows you how to listen to your feelings, resist manipulation from others, and put forward your point of view.

Useful in science when: you keep getting lumbered with jobs you don’t want to do.


How to Win Friends And Influence People

Another classic. The title of this book makes it sound like some kind of wierd pick-up artist handbook, but actually this 80-year old book is about what makes people tick, and the importance of taking a genuine interest in them. In many situations this is all another person wants from you.

Useful in science when: you are at a conference hoping to develop possible collaborations.



Difficult Conversations – How to discuss what matters most

This one is less of a classic, but no less useful.

We’ve all had situations when we really needed to discuss something difficult, but weren’t sure how to bring it up without causing problems.

This book explains that these ‘difficult conversations’ often boil down to differences in perseption of the same situation, and offers advice on how to difuse situations before they become a problem.

Useful in science when: you feel like your contribution is not being recognised.