Principal Investigators Association

No. 118: Mentoring Difficult Persons Requires Much of Us

Reader question:  While trying to build a cohesive research group, one that fires on all cylinders and produces world-class data, I consistently struggle with personalities in my group who do not seem motivated to cooperate with the project direction or goals, or who simply do not fit in.  What can I do to successfully address this issue without destroying the contribution being made by that person?

Expert comments:

In all walks of life, dealing with difficult personalities can at times be challenging.  Try reasoning with a young, overwhelmed check-out person at the grocery store on a busy Friday evening, or communicating a “No” answer to a teenager who has made up his mind to stay out later than reasonable.  Creating good relationships with others is, in part, remembering a few simple principles and then coupling these principles with genuine kindness and seemingly infinite patience.

“I believe a few key principles frame the playing field in human communications,” says Rick Parmely, Founder of Polished and Professional, LLC, a training and communications company based in Pennsylvania.  According to Parmely, some of these principles include: knowing something about the person you are speaking to, recognizing some of your own pre-dispositions, and listening before you speak. These principles seem pretty obvious, but let’s apply them to the research group scenario mentioned at the outset.

Understanding others is fundamental to knowing how to effectively coach them.  How much do you know about that “difficult” person’s background?  What about the things he or she might be struggling with:  child-care, transportation or language issues.  Although you are not responsible to fix these personal issues, the support you lend by listening can prove invaluable. 

“Your reaction when a researcher wants to discuss something of a non-research nature may go a long way toward building (or burning) that essential bridge that must exist for strong team relationships,” says Parmely, who has successfully managed groups of researchers and business persons throughout his career.  He suggests occasionally taking some extra time - invite a person who is struggling to sit and talk over coffee, arrange to have lunch together, or take a walk with them on campus.  Then listen. Really listen.  It will pay dividends later.

What about kindness and patience?  It has been said, “When in doubt, remember that the kind thing is the right thing.”  Kindness goes a long way toward mitigating anger or an uncooperative spirit in any group.  And patience?  Displaying that quality will become essential when we do not get immediate results from conscientiously applying all the other things.  Patience provides us with the opportunity to smooth out the rough sections of our own personalities.  It has been said, “A man who is a master of patience is master of everything else.” George Savile

So try this for starters.  Get to know your group well and view each of them as a valuable team member, each with a story to tell.  Ask questions and then listen - closely.  Get to know yourself and your reactions by listening to mentors and advisors, by encouraging open feedback, by taking queues from group members willing to give you input, and by taking a personality assessment that will provide you data and insight about your own reactions under different situations.  Then, display genuine kindness and patience as you apply what you learn.  Keep trying - remind yourself that nothing truly valuable comes from walking an easy path.

Expert comments provided by Rick Parmely.

Rick Parmely is the founder of Polished and Professional LLC, a training company that specializes in improving the communication skills of presenters everywhere, from the individual investigator to large groups of trainers.  He can be reached at [email protected]

Polished and Professional provides communications coaching and mentoring on-line as well as on-site to groups as diverse as Merck & Company, Restek Corporation and associations like the Association of Laboratory Managers (ALMA) and the Pittsburgh Conference. 

PnP provides one-on-one coaching to individuals or to larger groups at a convenient time and location, in an atmosphere conducive to learning.  They also polish written communications and professional oral presentations, readying them for “prime time,” whether they are targeted for investors, or for local, national, or international audiences and meetings.

6 comments on “No. 118: Mentoring Difficult Persons Requires Much of Us

  1. I agree with all the nice things Rick Parmely said, and beleive that is what you should try first. However, having praticed kindness and patience consistently, there are still a couple of uncooperative, unproductive people I wish I had just outright fired when my gut told me to. Having now fired a person or two from my lab team, I see what a wonderful effect it can have on the attitude and productivity of those who remain.

  2. Excellent advice! I had to deal with this situation a few months back. One of my tech’s became an extremely difficult person in what seemed to happen overnight. The tech began coming in late, leaving early, exhibiting very unprofessional behavior, undermining my authority and others, etc. It was causing other staff members to resent them and really just snowballed into a mess. Finally — (and I have learned I really should have done this sooner) I set down with them and really found the root of the problem and how we could correct it together. Take the time to LISTEN and much can be understood and accomplished.

  3. Very great presentation! I have been in this situation many times and the worst thing you can do is ignore it or pretend it does not exist. Every week you have to do something to try to make it better: Listening, changing things up, communicating, documenting…all with compassion. Then, if nothing helps over a period of time, you have to act to resolve the problem. It is likely your entire team is suffering or struggling with the same person and you have to take action to support the entire team. If you do nothing to make the situation better, the team will start to vastly under perform.

  4. Sometimes one negative individual can indeed torpedo your whole group, and kindness and understanding does help but may not fix the problem. I sit down with my whole group and explain, with great patience and understanding, what is expected, without targeting anyone in particular (the ones who are doing the torpedoing know who they are). I expect my lab members to respect each other, a positive attitude, and no talking behind other people’s backs. These expectations are told to new people joining the lab. And I try to lead by example.

  5. I agree with the advice about kindness and listening. However, no one has the right to disrupt a lab group, and the PI has the responsibility to manage the whole team as well as individuals. Therefore although listening may help to solve the problem by getting an individual back on track, the leader also must be prepared to draw a clear line in the sand and fire someone who cannot change his or her behavior for whatever reason. I had an employee who had a growing alcohol problem. I participated in an intervention set up by his wife, but when he came to work with alcohol on his breath two weeks after he had been gone for a month in an inpatient facility, I fired him on the spot because part of the agreement was that he would be clean and sober at work. I felt badly about that, but his behavior was endangering the whole group because his previously excellent work had become very shoddy. Adriana’s approach is my first point of action, followed by a one-on-one meeting in an informal setting, then documentation in case I have to act through the personel system.

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