Facing up to the Existence of the Jerk

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.

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6 Responses to Facing up to the Existence of the Jerk

  1. vivien dwyer says:

    Bravo! In one local institution we, the lowest of the low, were forced to actually hide from whatever half of the seniors we weren’t currently working for. Or we would be in for some sort of inquisition. Not the best workplace to be part of. It got wearing having to rapidly disappear whenever the opposition hove in view. That was years ago but I believe that this particular outfit has had several more generations of this type of warfare since with different personnel. The head was a nice guy but useless as a leader and basically just gave up on the situation. He was brilliant at what he did academically!


  2. Ottoline Leyser says:

    I am trying to get some traction for the concept of net contribution to research.

    Producing excellent research is all very well, but if it is done at the expense of other people’s ability to do so, then the net contribution of a jerk is small, or even negative. Someone who produces excellent research but refuses to referee grants and papers, serve on the committees that support the research system, or provide high quality mentoring and support for junior colleagues is increasing the workload for everyone else, and driving future talent out of the research community, thereby reducing the overall productivity of the system. Anyone who has had to deal with the effects of a jerk will know well the huge burden they load into the system.

    Assessment of research excellence should take this into account. We are all of us in favour of excellence, but to support excellence, including the excellence of individuals, it is essential to consider the excellence of the system and the part that individuals play in building it.

  3. Steve Moss says:

    Couple of comments. Over the last 30 years I sense that there are now fewer ‘brilliant scientist but utter bastards’ around. As a post-doc in the ’80s at the hot house of the ICRF I recall a good many group leaders of this phenotype, though certain PhDs and post-docs seemed to thrive with them (perhaps the utter bastards of the future). Now (at least at UCL) they seem rather less common.

    But on the issue of leadership, HEIs love to talk about leadership when what they often really want is management. Have we done our safety training or bullying and harrassment courses, is Researchfish up to date, teaching load returns etc. etc. it’s endless and all tick box management rather than real leadership. Leadership at lab level is different and you’re right, it doesn’t necessarily come naturally and isn’t always easy. My suspicion is that the substitution of leadership by management at our more senior levels is contributing to the problem.

  4. Nice piece!
    My thoughts on this: Leadership in academia is hampered by the complete lack of management training by academic heads of institutes: solutions are devised by excellent academic problem solvers, who are unaware of professional approaches to solving management problems which might have standard solutions. I have seen many times “learning by doing approaches” plugged straight from the lab to tackle issues, instead of maybe reading a guide by a professional.
    Moreover academic HR-management might be governed by the experience of high-turnover in academic teams. Any problem “solves” itself automatically, as PhD/PostDoc will leave after 3-4 years anyways. So jerks are free to roam the floors, exploiting the toxic dependencies juniour academics are exposed to without any support!

  5. Thanks for the comments. I am not convinced that the numbers of jerks is decreasing. I find it demoralising to see the same sorts of behaviour manifesting in 40 year olds that one would have hoped had vanished with the retirement of an older generation. But unfortunately not. Possibly the current pressures within academia encourage this even if societal expectations should lead to a reduction in it.

    I like Ottoline’s idea, but I’m afraid the Forum for Responsible Metrics might struggle. After all, exactly the kind of thing one would not want to see rewarded is how many people go on to be fellow academics – easy to quantify – as opposed to how many are well-mentored. The mentoring and support side would be a real problem, even if the numbers of papers and grants refereed can be relatively easily counted. Some workload models try to ‘count’ hours spent on different committees, but even that is difficult. How do you score preparing an Athena Swan submission versus the departmental Finance Committee? It isn’t the hours ‘at’ the committee that matter in that case.

  6. Nessie Monster says:

    Thankd for raising this. It’s one of the reasons I left academia for med comms. There was zero commitment from my uni to do anything about my bullying, neglectful supervisor. None of the other research groups I had contact with through my cohort peers had anything resembling good leadership, and in general it appeared there was no training on good leadership practices at all in life sciences academia. Like, post-docs don’t get any training on it and it doesn’t feature in the metrics for who gets promoted. It always seemed like the be all and end all is how much grant money you can bring in, which is not the way to go about it.

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