As stories of harassment and bullying multiply in the media (social and otherwise), it is worth thinking about what it is in management and leadership that lets situations get out of hand. Too often I hear the phrase that someone is ‘on the spectrum’ provided as a rationale for why they aren’t too good at interpersonal relationships within a lab or team. I find the phrase objectionable of itself, but as an excuse I also don’t feel it cuts the mustard. If someone takes on a leadership role, then they need to think hard about their strengths when it comes to dealing with difficult situations and people. No one pretends it’s easy or necessarily comes naturally; it is a skill to be learned and if you can’t maybe you’re in the wrong role. It should matter to the individual and organisation to get this right. Running a team is too often seen to be only about the science, not about mentoring, developing others and ensuring everyone can work well together.
I have started asking men who champion women in science why they do it. One answer that struck me very much was the person (an extremely successful MD of a tech company who had a mathematical background) who said that it was because they were aware that they suffered from Asperger’s syndrome they knew they had to work at things that for others might seem intuitive. Putting in thought and work was exactly what made them so aware of the importance of the individual and personal if they were to get the best out of people. It made this person aware of just how hard it was for women to thrive in some workplaces.
When things go wrong in team dynamics, when bullying or harassment is suspected or proven, that the person at the top is deemed incapable of resolving the problem or, even worse, is the perpetrator, seems to me to be a collective failure. It needn’t be like this. Doing nothing – being complicit – is just one, unacceptable ‘justification’ for letting jerks rule the roost. Very often I believe the person concerned may be totally unaware of the impact of their behaviour or that they are indeed behaving like a jerk. I can think of examples of group/department/institutional leads who have overseen teams where things are publicly going wrong and yet never, for one moment, do they think they might have contributed to the mess or that they have some part to play in changing the culture. Others around have to be prepared to speak up and say something along the lines of: you may not be the guilty party, you may have nothing proven against you if complaints have been raised, but you certainly need to take the lead in improving the workplace environment. And, if you have any personal responsibility because you have been brusque (or worse) or looked the other way when complainants have come forward, you need to acknowledge this if improvement is to occur allowing everyone to move on.
The main trouble, I believe, is that so little weight is placed on leadership skills by our academic institutions, until it goes wrong or suddenly they can’t find anyone who looks remotely plausible as a departmental head. Insufficient conversations are had at senior levels about what good leadership looks like, so that, as one moves up the ladder, it can feel as if you are the only person who feels out of your depth. This does not encourage seeking help. I have talked at events for early career researchers, those who are starting to run their own groups after their postdoctoral years, and knowing how to do this well is always a key concern. Some of this (and I remember this well) is the mechanical stuff of how to build up a lab: equipment, consumables and such like. But it is also about interpersonal skills: how to criticise a weak student without making them crumble; how to choose projects so they don’t overlap; how to decide who to send to a conference and whose name goes on papers; when and how to intervene when two students are in conflict; how to spot bullying and how to respond to complaints about bullying….The list of skills goes on and on. But being an excellent scientist who has just landed their fellowship, lectureship or whatever because of their academic brilliance, is not enough to ensure good team leader skills.
And so it goes on as progression through the ranks occurs. The habit of not intervening when bullying starts, the habit of shouting at weak students or having favourites who always get sent to the best meetings, these failings can get ingrained. If the work continues to go well, if the plaudits come in your direction for the scientific brilliance, why stop to think that actually people’s lives are being destroyed? Group leaders can be totally successful (academically) and yet utter bastards. We need to change our lab cultures so that the bastards cannot thrive. (The failings do not need to be anything as egregious as formal harassment, but of course that might be included in what I’m discussing.)
It worries me that, because excellence is seen as the be all and end all so often in our universities, that it is inevitable that bullying ends up being tolerated by too many people. A head of department or institution who has reached that heady state of being able to hire and fire people, to make or break careers, may do so in ways that are shattering. Never mind that, if someone complains, it may prove necessary upon occasion to introduce a pay-off perhaps with gagging order attached, the person at the top may still be untouchable. I know it happens and the system appears to think this is a small price to pay. I don’t believe it is. It is a huge price to pay if people are casually destroyed in the process. Ah, but I hear leadership say, they are ‘small’ people who are in the way of scientific excellence. I leave you to judge if that is sufficient excuse.