Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Ending It

Most of my collaborations, long-term and short-term, have been very positive experiences. I haven't had any trouble finding interesting and collegial people with complementary research interests. It can be frustrating working with other people who have a different style and pace of working (and writing/editing/communicating), but in general things work out for the best..

.. except when they don't, and then the situation and attempts to extricate yourself from it can be painful.

Last spring I wrote about Working with Jerks, as I believe it is nearly impossible for one to go through an entire career without ever working with someone of the jerkish persuasion. There are many different species of jerks, and some are more odious than others.

If you find yourself working with a difficult and/or unpleasant person and you want to get out of the situation, is there a good way to do it? The short answer is no, if 'good' means 'easy', 'uncomplicated', and/or 'without negative consequences'. These situations are seldom as simple as making a call (or sending an e-mail .. or text message .. or posting something on Facebook) to say "You are a jerk and I am not working with you any more." (even if you leave out the first part)

In some cases, there are ancillary, complicating issues, including personal connections and funding commitments. If there are such issues, you have to think carefully about whether and how to end a working relationship.

What if the jerkish colleague has some mitigating circumstances? For example, what if this person has had some difficulties in his career/personal life, has a 'mood disorder', has some difficulty relating to human beings but is not an evil person, and so on? Do all those what ifs add up to making excuses for someone who should be ostracized or are they sufficient reason to end a dysfunctional and/or unpleasant working relationship?

I know some people who would respond So what? to each of the what ifs above, and others who would take these into account and try to continue working with a difficult colleague. So, let's consider some more what ifs.

What if one of your jerkish collaborators runs a lab that you need access to and there are no other such labs on the planet? Unfortunately, I cannot recommend trying to end such a collaboration.

What if one of your jerkish current or former collaborators becomes an administrator at a major funding agency? If you've collaborated with such an administrator, they have a conflict of interest with you and cannot be involved in the review or decision process of your proposals, but it can make for a tense situation if you don't have a good working relationship with a grants officer. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend trying to end a collaboration with such a person either, though I've tried it.

What if you don't have a tenured or a tenure-track job (yet) and you can't go telling influential jerks to take a hike (yet)? Ditto.

What if the problem person is a dysfunctional student or postdoc and you have a lot invested in them (time, funding) and/or it would be a major problem for you and your research group if you fired them?

Do all these what ifs sum to the conclusion that, more often than not, we have to continue to work with unpleasant people even if we don't want to? Does this help perpetuate the existence and survival of the jerk species in academia?

I hope not, but only once in my career thus far have I successfully done a surgical removal of an extraordinarily jerkish collaborator, and it took many years of putting up with unpleasant behavior by that person before I reached the point of no return. The point of no return for me happened to occur in a charming alley of a major international city and involved my saying to my soon-to-be-ex-colleague, in a rather emphatic way that startled passersby: "You are a psychopath. I am done working with you." [FSP walks away]

It sounds kind of funny now, but at the time I was quite shaken by the experience because I had a lot invested in that collaboration (financially and emotionally), and I was worried about the collateral damage -- i.e. would there be negative consequences for my research group of severing this collaborative relationship? It was clearly the best thing to do, though, and the few negative consequences were worth the aggravation.

A more typical way to end an unwanted collaboration, however, is a more gradual, more diplomatic retreat.

As I get older, I have less patience with unpleasant people and in theory have the luxury of working with whomever I want, but it is never that simple. There is almost always some reason why I could put up with some amount of unpleasantness for the sake of the larger project, or the students, or other colleagues, or someone or something. I could, but do I want to? What level of difficulty is acceptable and what level justifies ending a collaboration despite the consequences?

There's no one answer, of course, in part because it's a moving target, but in general, if the bad outweighs the good, it's time to end the collaboration. Perhaps you can be open with the ex- or soon-to-be-ex-colleague about why you are no longer interested in collaborating with them, or perhaps you can "reevaluate your priorities". And perhaps you can gradually extricate yourself or find some other polite exit strategy that doesn't involve yelling about psychopaths in the middle of a street.


Ms.PhD said...

As someone for whom the options are a) continuing working with the jerk because of mitigating circumstances or b) drop out of science altogether, do you have any advice on how to maintain one's sanity while working with jerks? You know, like in some of those cases you mentioned where you can't recommend ending it.

AsstFemaleProf said...

There is a great book that discusses this called "The No Asshole Rule". I forget the author, but the title is unique enough...

Kea said...

Ms PhD, the best one can do is make up for the inevitable poor health in other ways - eat healthy and exercise a lot. And one can usually get away with not spending much time with them, too.

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Nice post, but I'm disappointed you couldn't work in a "There are some people up with which I will not put."

Anonymous said...

(in part also addressing Ms. PhD's post)--I actually think a lot of people are jerks because of mitigating circumstances that we just do not know about. As I've been at the same institution now for close to a decade, I've made a lot of friends over the years who sometimes share certain privileged information with me. I have been occasionally surprised to hear about unfortunate life circumstances of some people who were concomitantly going through notorious jerk-ish periods. And most people had no idea why said individuals were acting that way.
That said, there is also a certain portion of academics who are simply jerks. But, believing that life circumstances--unknown to me--are driving the behavior often helps me to be more tolerant.
Just a suggestion...

Anonymous said...

There is a great book that discusses this called "The No Asshole Rule". I forget the author, but the title is unique enough...

Unfortunately, this rule seems surprisingly difficult to apply in practice. I know one university administrator who loves to cite it and brags about creating an asshole-free environment via careful vetting of proposed hires. The only drawback is that it has subtly turned into the "No Assholes Except Me Rule".

I tend to believe in the broken windows theory of jerkdom. In an environment where casual putdowns and other forms of rudeness are tolerated, jerks feel free to turn into assholes. By contrast, if unpleasant people are shunned, jerks either reform or leave for greener pastures.

Anonymous said...

Excellent food for thought.

I've had two relieving ends to collaborating with utter jerks. One was a PhD supervisor who claimed that he hadn't been given enough time to read my thesis (where "enough" apparently meant >6 months for the bits that were relevant to him) - he was refusing to sign the forms to start organising my defence. So I emailed the nice people at Influential Research Funding Agency to explain that there were difficulties meaning that I would still be in statu pupillari despite having been awarded a postdoc grant. I cc'd this email to my supervisor, his boss, and his boss's boss. in under an hour I had PhD examiners and never had to speak to my supervisor again.

Number 2 was much less pleasant, but I discovered that by resorting to only communicating through the entirely reasonable head of department, I could get my point across that totally incompetent research cannot be justified by bluster and arrogance alone. I'd been trying to get this point across for two years by then.

The administrative nightmare that usually is academia can occasionally have its uses!

EliRabett said...

Having gone through this twice myself, the important lesson that I learned was when talking to others about the collapse/work done, always be extremely positive: We did great things together and I enjoyed the hell out of it, but all good things come to an end and we parted ways.

Anonymous said...

Over the course of a career as a computer techie (with a bio PhD), I've run across and had to work for complete assholes on a couple of occasions. Generally speaking, I am now prepared to put up with them if I don't have to deal with them much, but I would recommend absolutely that nobody work in an environment where one's direct manager is an asshole.

The first time was in a tech start-up, where pretty much everything seemed to get done on an ad-hoc, "fix it temporarily for now" sort of basis where the managers routinely tried to intimidate and bully the staff. I lasted 18 months, and was considered one of the long-serving staff for that.

Second time was in an academic-related post, dealing with highly technical helpdesk systems admin, managed by a complete idiot who didn't have any technical knowledge at all, yet who was dead-set on empire-building. She also had a weakness for white wine, and a regrettable tendency towards exhibitionism when sufficiently inebriated, which combined with a complete lack of talent has rather put the damper on her career (the downward progress of which I follow from a distance out of sadistic schardenfreude).

What I have learned is this: assholes never change, never learn and never improve their behaviour. If you get lumbered with working with one, try to get away from said asshole or engineer a public pratfall for him in some manner which cannot backfire onto you; alternatively just walk away from any collaboration. Life is too short and sanity to fragile to be dealing with assholes routinely.