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Home Back Issues No. 54: Talented Post-Doc Has Answer for Everything – How Can I Get Through to Him?

Nov 15

No. 54: Talented Post-Doc Has Answer for Everything – How Can I Get Through to Him?

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Talented Post-Doc Has Answer for Everything – How Can I Get Through to Him?

Reader Question: I've just received my first grant. On my newly assembled team there's a talented post-doc who's a little too free with his advice. Anytime anyone mentions what they're going to do, he offers an unsolicited suggestion, as if he has all the answers. Others are starting to complain. When I approached him, he offered me suggestions on how to deal with the others' complaints and why his points were all correct. He's talented; I like him on my team, but he needs to tone it down and respect others' boundaries. Any suggestions on how to deal with this "know-it-all" post-doc?

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Expert Comments:

The most important rule: Do not avoid the problem, and do not assume it will go away on its own or that the post-doc will catch on over time. The earlier you intervene, the greater the hope of a successful transformation. Talk with him.

It's very important to keep the conversation on topic and not introduce side issues. Be clear out the outset what you are hoping to accomplish. You want to be sure the conversation is your best recourse, and in this case it clearly sounds as if it would be.

During your talk, make the distinction that your aim is to help him understand his contribution to a difficulty that's developed in the lab vs. blaming him for it. Be as specific as possible about what the post-doc is doing that is contributing to the problem, rather than making general characterizations of his personality. Statements like, "When you did this or said this, it had this impact or consequence"... are useful.

In terms of the post-doc making unsolicited suggestions and trying to justify everything, I think it's important to interrupt that scenario whenever it occurs and try to re-orient the post-doc "on the spot" toward understanding how his remarks affect others. That can help him alter his way of speaking or actions so as to have a more positive impact once he sees what his style is producing. It doesn't seem that the post-doc has any hurtful intention; the impact is different from what he intended, and he needs to understand the difference.

Many academic institutions offer sensitivity-training courses. Your human resources staff might steer him to a course appropriate for him.

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I suggest that PIs prepare a written "Welcome to the Laboratory" statement for everyone joining the lab, in which they make clear the spirit with which they run the lab and will address issues like talks, abstracts, participation in meetings and seminars. It's important for the PI to lay out his/her expectations. For example: What goes on at lab meetings? What kinds of support will there be for attendance at outside meetings? What are the expectations for giving presentations within the institution and outside in academic societies?

This gives new staff members a clear idea of what to expect and establishes conduct norms. Then, if one of them has to point to problematic behavior or conduct of someone in the lab, this document can be referenced. It makes any actions you take seem less subjective and less personal.

The statement also could cover data presentation, conduct of research, how decisions are made with respect to authorship and collaboration, what technical support is available, how working in the lab is connected to career development, how and on what dimension people will be evaluated.

It's also helpful to speak explicitly about your expectations as to work habits, quantity and quality of laboratory time, interactions with others, and about notebooks and record-keeping.

Beyond that, I can recommend these resources:
Difficult Conversations, (Stone, Patton, and Heen).
Crucial Conversations, (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler).

Expert Comments by Howard Gadlin, PhD, ombudsman and director of the Center for Cooperative Resolution at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Gadlin will conduct a live webinar Wednesday, Nov. 17, at 2 p.m. on "Conflict Management for PIs." For details on how to join the conference or to order a CD, MP3, or PDF transcript, visit the conference webpage.

The content above is brought to you by the Principal Investigators Association, an independent organization not connected with the NIH or endorsed by it. The views expressed are solely the personal ones of the commentator.

Comments (3)
written by Victor, November 15, 2010
If he is just ill-bred, make him shut up. But if he is really talented and if what he says makes sense, maybe everybody else have better to shut up?
Professor Emeritus
written by Richard, November 18, 2010
Alas, I have seen this type of individual prosper far too long within our own organization. The likelihood that he or the Post-Doc you portray, will ever get rid of his egomania is doubtful. He needs to hear that, contrary to..., he does not walk on water and, should he continue to try to do so, his academic future will see him sink below the waterline!
The individual I refer to is coming up for promotion this coming year and hasn't a clue that it will be his colleagues and peers who will cast the ultimate and damning vote.
A Post-doc has some time before he or she reaches that point so, one way or another, he or she needs to hear the clarion call of humility, politeness, and sharing of ideas before his clock runs out of the opportunity to redeem his reputation.
Yes, good ideas are invaluable to the team, and should be considered seriously. That said however, the damage he is doing to the team's morale can devastate. It is time for the P.I. to fish or cut bait on this issue and face the person front on!
What about junk posts?
written by Victor, November 26, 2010
In the not so distant past, my (and others) posts at this site were heavily censored and sometimes even removed. Where is this censorship now, when message boards are inundated with junk? I would think site editors should remove these junk commercial posts right at once. Why it doesn't happen?

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