Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Working With Jerks

In the comments on yesterday’s post, a number of people said that I shouldn’t bother working with a particular obnoxious person. This made me think about the issue of working with jerks. It is unrealistic to believe that one can spend one’s entire career working only with nice, sane people, and there are certain circumstances in which working with jerks is necessary.

First, a definition: In this context, a jerk is someone who behaves in a consistently rude, manipulative, or unethical way. I am sure there are other adjectives, but these three cover a fair amount of ground. It is important to note that I am not talking about difficult people, or cranky people, or people who work at a different pace or in a different style than what I prefer. I am talking about people whose conversational style involves insults or threats and who lie about issues important to research collaboration (for example).

Why work with jerks? When is it necessary or even (on balance) preferred for a professor who has a lot of independence in choice of research topics and colleagues to work with a jerk?

Example: Early in my career, I chose to take my research in a new direction that required me to work with someone who had particular expertise and contacts. He turned out to be a high-level jerk (rude, manipulative, and unethical), but he helped me get started with this research. I benefited from working with him because I launched a new research project, and he benefited from working with me because I added him as a coauthor on many papers and supported some of his research funding with my grants. He does not publish much on his own, and these papers helped his career. Nevertheless, owing to his ghastly behavior, once I had attained a particular level of expertise in this research field, I jettisoned him. I felt that I had repaid the favor he had done me of sharing his knowledge, and it just wasn’t worth the continual stress and trauma of working with him any longer.

Now that my research career is well established, I don’t have to work closely with such people if I don’t want to. Nevertheless, in some cases, research collaboration involves working directly or indirectly with people who have one or more jerkian characteristics. If they are low-level jerks (rude, but not unethical), it might be worth it. Or not. It’s a choice that can be made in each circumstance.

Regarding the jerk I described yesterday, I help him or not as my time and inclination permit. I get to choose, and sometimes I choose to help him with his research or manuscript editing. His being a jerk is of no consequence to me. I don’t know him and I don’t have to work with him. So why help him? Helping him helps his students and is compatible with my philosophy of helping scientists in less fortunate circumstances than my own. I have chosen not to apply a jerk filter when deciding whom to help. That is a far different situation from one in which you have no choice and your career depends on a jerk.

19 comments:

Mad Hatter said...

I agree there are times when we have no choice but to work with jerks. I have also chosen to work with low-level jerks occasionally, not so much because I actively wanted to, but because in those instances it wasn't worth making an issue of it. Simply put, it was more expedient to just get along until what needed to be done had been accomplished.

But I do wonder if jerks persist at the frequency they do, and achieve the success they do, because we tolerate them. When we work with jerks, are we simply enabling them to continue being jerks with impunity, or even encouraging jerky behavior by rewarding it?

Female Science Professor said...

I considered addressing the jerk-enablement issue, but decided, perhaps in a moment of fatigue and cynicism, that there will always be jerks whether the non-jerks work with them or not. (which is not to say that a bit of ostracism and jerk-intolerance wouldn't be a good idea)

blop said...

I'm not sure that helping him helps his students. Because it makes him more successful hence more powerful hence more difficult to avoid for students of his institution...

Beth said...

I guess the questions I'd ask is how does it serve you to work with this jerk? What is the 'gift' in helping jerk boy? Is there a cost to working with the jerk? How can we challenge jerky behaviour while still interacting with them?

Female Science Professor said...

Why does it have to 'serve' me?

Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde said...

It's my impression, from this post and many others, that you are unusually skilled at not taking that sort of behavior as a personal affront; at not responding in kind; at continuing your own (sane) plans in the face of jerky opposition; at not allowing jerks to derail your day in any respect. I'd love to hear you talk/post about how you developed this level of serenity. Always had it? Zen mantra? Kevlar suit?

Anonymous said...

I heard the former dean of Princeton's engineering college speak recently (she's now the president of Harvey Mudd College in southern CA). She was talking about encouraging women to enter the sciences, and one thing she thought was very important was not to tolerate jerks (she actually used that word). This is not just because they're difficult and unpleasant to work with, but because having them around in high places teaches *young people*, ie our students, that being jerks is okay and even advantageous. That is not a good thing to teach people. She also observed that there are so many talented people around that there's usually no need to bring a jerk into the picture deliberately. She used to ask faculty who came to her, all excited about a Big Star Researcher, what kind of person he was -- and if there was an, "Ummm, well..." then she discouraged the hire. Wow.

Beth said...

I guess what I meant was really was there was a positive outcome for you at all in working with him. Not just for his students but for you. And I think Dr.Jeyall and Mrs. Hyde sumed it up - it sounds like you don't let them derail you at all. Which is really inspirational - I tend to let jerkiness through me off into exteme irritation which does not serve me at ALL!

Anonymous said...

I have found myself several times recently in a strange position regarding jerks. People who I have worked with and found to be perfectly pleasant, turn out to be widely regarded (in my tiny sub-field) as jerks. In fact, it turns out that they are jerks - to other people. This has shown me the dangerous side of working with jerks, when I was seen as participating in their bad behavior though in fact, I had no idea it was going on at the time.

Anonymous said...

Yes, this sounds very much like the skills I am trying (unsuccessfully) to learn in my mindfulness-based stress reduction class. How do you do it?

cmb said...

I tend to be of the opinion that it is almost never worth it to work with high level jerks (that is, unethical ones). Granted, there are different levels of unethical-ness, but once you get up to point where someone's falsifying data, or even to the point where someone's screwing over their grad students or postdocs in all the ways a professor can though their own biases or unhelpfulness, then by tolerating that jerk, people are facilitating that unethical-ness. Especially if this jerk is well-known and/or knowledgeable, it can be disastrous or at least deeply discouraging for future people who come along and work with them. One of the ways scientists signal to each other that another scientist is valuable is by working with them--I think it's really important to be careful who you send a positive signal about, so that other scientists don't get caught in bad situations.

I'm wondering then--I can deal with rude and manipulative, but what are your reasons for tolerating unethical jerks? Even if it helps your career, isn't it ultimately bad for science?

chemcat said...

Breaking news from Nature's website: James Watson's genome has been sequenced, in four months and at a fraction of the cost of Craig Venter's.
We now have a shot at identifying the misogyny-sexism-jword gene.
In the future, a simple DNA test will enable us to pre-evaluate potential collaborators.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, in many scientific fields, jerks are the ones who have the connections to get their students and post-docs the high-level jobs. You can work for a nice guy, but then don't expect to get a great job afterwards.

Female Science Professor said...

Sometimes you don't know the extent of someone's jerkiness until you work with them for a while, as was the case in my example. By the time I figured it out, it would have harmed my career (and chances for tenure) if I had abandoned the project once I had started it. When people ask me why I stopped working with Professor Jerk, I tell them exactly why, and this has reduced his career opportunities on a number of occasions.

Re. the lower level jerk who requests my help in an obnoxious way -- my help definitely benefits his students. That is important to me because I recall my experience working with a jerk in my first two years of grad school. I am very glad that at least some scientists in my field did not abandon or ostracize me because one of my advisors was a jerk. Some did, and I thought that was very unfair. My life was difficult enough as it was.

Anonymous said...

I hope that when I get tenure, I can be more zen about the jerk I work for (my dean). Right now, it is really hard, and I have begun to look for another job because I am not sure I can take another 3 years of this. In the past two months, I have received snidely worded emails and been bullied in front of our Collegium when I presented a policy my committee had been charged to write. I am female; my dean is male, and has a history of this sort of behavior (he is a high-level jerk).

What do you do when it's your boss (not necessarily a colleague) who is a total jerk? I have been in touch with our Provost, but nothing's really changed.

Female Science Professor said...

My post was about working with jerks by choice. You are clearly in a much more difficult and unpleasant situation. If there's no sign that your Dean will depart for other deanly pastures and if the Provost is not willing or able to help your situation, I hope your job search is successful. Maybe that will get someone's attention at your present institution, or perhaps you can find a better situation for yourself.

EliRabett said...

I'd like to broaden this a bit. Some people are . . . . difficult, often due to things that happened to them, like jerks. My strategy, such as it is, is to work with them, but let them take the lead as to how far to go, in other words they have to work their problems out in the context of our collaboration. Sometimes that means the collaboration dies, but in that case, nothing that I could have done would have worked, and in the long run they would have just gotten madder.

The Mad Chemist said...

I was just pondering about working with jerks on my blog (4.11.08). I don't know what field of science you are in but in my area (organic chemistry) it seems ALL of the best chemists are colossal jerks.

It all leaves me to wonder about the future of my field. I love chemistry but how can I recommend it to a young student who is thinking of pursuing it as a career?

Buffalo Sally said...

From my experiences, high level jerks have one thing in common and that is this feeling that "none but I shall be adored". They are easily threaten, especially by women since we are better than them. I like Maria Klawe's (President of Harvey Mudd) stance:
"No Jerks Allowed".