Building a Humane Workplace

This is the unabridged/unedited version of an article that first appeared a couple of weeks ago in Optics and Photonics.

Increasingly industry has woken up to the fact that diverse teams make better decisions and, by implication, make more money. Although the driver of higher profits does not immediately translate to academia, making better decisions – not least because a team is approaching a problem from many angles – certainly does.  One only has to think about what a lack of gender awareness meant for many years regarding car safety to realise a single viewpoint can lead to trouble: the analysis was built on using a ‘standard’ US man as the dummy whose ‘injuries’ were considered, thereby ignoring totally how a small adult (typically but not necessarily a woman) let alone a child might fare in a crash (If you want to know more, look at the Gendered Innovation website which covers many examples.)

Diverse teams, diverse in whatever way, can lead to challenges. By definition it means not everyone sees the world in the same way. Inevitably that may mean people rubbing each other up the wrong way, even if completely unintentionally. Leading such a team in the lab means awareness and sensitivity are required. Unfortunately training in these skills is not usually to be found in either the undergraduate or graduate curriculum! Many group leaders/principal investigators (PIs) can flounder when facing tensions between students, postdocs or visitors. Industry, on the other hand, seems to take appropriate leadership training much more seriously from the outset.

Issues do not necessarily reside in explicit sexism or racism, although they might. One student who is over-possessive of a key piece of equipment and loud-mouthed in their defence of such behaviour can wreak havoc in group dynamics. Other group members may take sides and a less vocal student can easily feel harried and bullied as a result. Such behaviour may all take place beneath the PI’s radar: bullies can be skilled at covering their tracks. To some extent everyone would benefit from bystander training to enable them to challenge bad behaviour whenever they see it, but the responsibility has to rest with the team leader.

Above all the PI has to believe wholeheartedly that bullying, even of this comparatively mild form, has to be tackled.  Without this, instances of even worse behaviour may flourish and multiply. The leader has to be willing to confront bad behaviour and make sure that everyone understands policies applicable within the group: setting out well understood and transparent rules for access to equipment, for instance, means no one can pretend they didn’t know they were acting out of line by hogging some vital item.

Group dynamics will be affected also by how even-handed the team leader is themselves. Favouritism can lead to all kinds of problems, be it in who gets to give the conference talk or who is expected to wash up the glassware time and time again. Both examples may have significant impacts on subsequent career progression of the student/postdocs involved, albeit in opposite directions. These things matter. They aren’t talked about enough as inexperienced but creative researchers suddenly find themselves responsible for more junior staff. PIs need to appreciate these are not trivial issues. Professionalism means that favouritism should have no place in the lab. Of course it is the case someone may be producing all the ground-breaking results, and a just reward is a trip to the latest, hottest conference on the other side of the world to present this work. But too often the same person is sent, time after time, to present the work of a whole team, a very different affair.

Finally, the environment can be made toxic for the whole team when explicitly (or even implicitly) sexist or racist remarks are tolerated. An atmosphere in which it is OK to comment on someone’s cleavage or imply that they are incompetent simply because of their gender or race (or indeed where they come from, even if only a hundred miles down the road) is unlikely to be a happy one. Some people may thrive in such a culture, but certainly not everyone. Gender equality initiatives, such as the Athena Swan Charter within the UK, may make excellent progress in populating committees with a good proportion of women, or in ensuring that advertisements look as if the institution welcomes families, but if at the local level unpleasant comments are tolerated then equality will be barely even skin deep. Department heads can set an appropriate tone, but local pockets of bad practice are hard to root out.

However I would go even further. PIs who promote an environment in which there isn’t simply an absence of harm, but a positive culture in which support if offered to group members who are suffering a temporary loss of health, well-being or even confidence, will benefit all (except perhaps the equipment-hogging individual). We can all suffer dips in performance if family or personal health takes a nose-dive; we may be less productive if worries mount about a friend, finances, crumbling relationships or any of a thousand different reasons. Awareness and mutual support can help anyone to get through tough times and providing enough social space and time for such support to be expressed within a research group  – as well as enabling more professional networking and encouragement – can only benefit the overall productivity of the team as a whole.

If the best are to succeed, if real talent is to thrive while boorish and selfish behaviour is not rewarded, we need to make sure PIs have the skills to deal with group dynamics and given encouragement when they successfully do so.



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One Response to Building a Humane Workplace

  1. KQ says:

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve been struggling as a graduate student for the past couple years with a group that does all these things, sexist jokes, racist jokes, possessiveness over equipment, with a PI who means well but is often not in the lab to witness the negative atmosphere. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve started wondering if I’m the one who is too sensitive and expecting too much of the lab environment. I never thought I would need reassuring on what I know is right, but I do, and I’m glad I can come back to read this.

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