Thursday, September 24, 2009

Team Players

In my youth I had many of those classic experiences in which someone (typically a teacher) selects two of the most popular and athletic kids and asks them to choose their own teams for some activities. The designated team captains took turns picking team members, although there was never any surprise as to the order of the choices. I was usually selected somewhere in the middle; I wasn't the most awesomely popular kid but I was reasonably well liked.

As a professor, I am responsible for choosing team members for a big project. This project will involve a large number of people from many different countries, and I need to devise an effective working group. I have been working hard to come up with a research team that is as compatible as possible. Do I choose my friends? The most popular scientists? Some new kids?

Thus far, I have encountered two types of obstacles to establishing a harmonious team.

One type involves statements like “I refuse to work with X”, in which X = another person who is already part of the group and is already making important contributions. If someone refuses to play with others, they can’t be on my team.

Another obstacle occurs when someone has political reasons for wanting someone else to be invited to be on the team. An example is when a young colleague who is part of the group requests that a senior professor in the same department be invited because otherwise the senior professor might be angry and could make life difficult for the younger professor. Do we invite bullies to be on the team because otherwise they might beat up one of the team members?

It may not be possible to assemblage a diverse group of people who can all get along and contribute substantially to the group effort, but it should be possible to leave out those who don't get along with others and those who aren't interested in the research. For me, it seems that team-choosing is still a part of life and still involves complex social issues.


Janka said...

No, you do not invite the bully.

There's really nothing to add to that.

Wanna Be Mother said...

I find it interesting that to social problems of professors are the same level as the social problems of elementary school kids, just for different reasons.

Is it like that in the "real world" too? Probably. I never understood this kind of thing because I usually like everyone.

Jen said...

@steph - unfortunately, the real world is very much like that. My dad was a bookkeeper at a Fortune-500 company for 40 years, and has stories of bad/petty/childish behavior (particularly by one long-time division head) that makes me cringe.

Ms.PhD said...

Must be a pretty scary bully, or a pretty spineless younger person. I hate both possibilities.

re: people who refuse to work together, these are people who tell you outright "I will not work with so-and-so on the same team"?

I guess it depends on whether you're working together in person, how long the project is for, and how co-dependent you will all be on each other. If everyone is contributing independently to a main pot (say, a program project grant), it might not matter. But if real cooperation is required, then yeah, I can see your problem.

There are some people I wouldn't work with because I wouldn't trust them to be honest. That is pretty much the only reason I would refuse to work with someone. In those cases, you would do well to listen to me instead of to them.

Hopefully people have enough spine to tell you why they're refuse to work together. But I would think twice about keeping the spineless younger people, too. We don't need more of them in science. There will always be plenty of bullies, but protecting the spineless doesn't help, either.

Kevin said...

I've never run into this problem, because I have never picked a team. I was always last chosen on sports teams, because I was the smallest and weakest. Academic competitions were rarely teams and never chosen by the students.

As a professor, I have some choice over what students work with me (when I have funding), but not much. For the most part the students pick the professors they want to work for.

I have always refused administrative roles, because I'm not good at playing middle-school social games.

Anonymous said...

Agree that you don't include the bully. In cases like this, I tell the junior person that they should inform their senior colleague that I am the one making that decision - so then the bully can come to me to complain (or blame me) rather than the junior faculty member.

Anonymous said...

in my experience team member selection is 99% political (to curry favor with more powerful people, to gain access to someone else's connections, to gain entry into a new subfield, to give the appearance of this or that) and less to do with what the team members's individual strengths and weaknesses are.

Anonymous said...

I've had 'team members' steal credit for my work and ideas, even blatantly go back on their word. e.g. we agree to collaborate on another proposal, I come up with a bunch of ideas and spend a lot of time putting together a feasible working plan, and my "team mate" takes this and submits the proposal on their own without my name included anywhere on it, or replacing me with someone else.

I have had this happen to me on numerous occasions and by more than one ex-collaborator, so it seems to be pretty common practice (though I have not, and refuse to, do this myself to other people). because of this I think it's perfectly valid to say "I will not work with so-and-so." and I now guard my ideas and work very carefully and am a lot less open to 'collaborations'.

EliRabett said...

There are basically two ways to do this. The first is to assemble the best team, a group that will work together and support each other to reach the goal. Different people will have different levels of skill, but each brings something to the table. This gives you the best chance of succeeding.

The second is to assemble a collection of self centered stars. This may blow up, but if you can hold it together long enough might win the Nobel Prize (then which three get the prize becomes interesting).

Your choice

Anonymous said...

Yay Ms. PhD, lets blame the victim!

I recently chose to not work on a large project because a local senior faculty member threatened me over participating on a research team with his "rival". I chose to work on something else instead.

Does choosing not to work on a cool project to avoid getting crappy teaching assignments and raise the ire of someone who can kill my tenure case make me spineless? I chose to balance my (untenured) departmental comfort against science. It pisses me off that I had to make such a decision but I did. I see myself as pragmatic and the old gasbag as spineless (keeping people from working with his detractors).

CC said...

An example is when a young colleague who is part of the group requests that a senior professor in the same department be invited because otherwise the senior professor might be angry and could make like difficult for the younger professor.

I think the usual practice of just adding the senior professor to the author list when you're done should suffice. Why muddy the waters by actually inviting him?

Ms.PhD said...

Anon 11:37, your situation is much more understandable and not spineless. Actually either choice in that scenario requires some backbone!

I was referring to the scenario where the younger person insists on inviting a bully to JOIN the group, which ruins it for everybody else in the group.

Sorry if that wasn't clear.