Education Leadership Conference

Scientists thrive on intellectual disagreements. But to advance scientific knowledge, research teams must learn how to encourage scientific disagreement without falling prey to personal conflict, National Institutes of Health Ombudsman Howard Gadlin, PhD, told participants at APA's 2011 Education Leadership Conference.

National Institute of Health Ombudsman Dr. Howard Gadlin (credit: Charles Votaw)"The last thing scientists want to hear is that you're going to take away what gives energy to their work," said Gadlin. "Our primary orientation when we work with scientists is to help people create an environment within which disagreement will flourish while simultaneously creating an environment within which personal conflict can be contained."

All sorts of interpersonal problems — lack of trust, squabbles over authorship and turf battles, among them — can derail collaborations, said L. Michelle Bennett, PhD, Deputy Scientific Director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at NIH. Investing time upfront to discuss how you'll manage such problems if they arise is well worth it, she and Gadlin emphasized. In fact, some teams craft the scientific equivalent of a prenuptial agreement.

Developing a shared vision is also key. Leaders of collaborative research teams should articulate a larger vision for the group and ensure that each individual within the group understands that vision and his or her role in achieving it, said Bennett. When teams get into trouble, she explained, it's often because members either can't articulate the vision or don't all share the same vision.

She recommends that team members be able to articulate the team's goals in a 30-second "elevator speech."

Building trust is another crucial step toward effective teams.

"The pivotal issue that affects almost every aspect of a team's functioning seems to be trust," said Gadlin. "It's because trust provides the framework from which other people's actions and statements are interpreted and understood."

Dr. L. Michelle Bennett of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at NIH (credit: Charles Votaw)Building trust takes time. It also takes more than pizza parties or ropes courses, he and Bennett emphasized. "Some groups say, ‘I don't know what's wrong; we celebrate birthdays once a month,'" said Bennett.

While these types of social activities can help, said Bennett and Gadlin, what's more important are weekly meetings about data or cases where team members get together for professional discussions. Choosing a strong leader who's trusted by all group members can also help a group cohere.

Simply recognizing the various stages of team development can also be helpful, said Bennett. According to one model, she said, teams begin by forming and then start "storming." "This is when the big elbows come out," she said. In the norming stage, things settle down, allowing the team to achieve the performing stage. The final stages are adjourning or transforming.

This model gives teams a vocabulary and a helpful reminder that tensions are normal, said Bennett. "We've had groups where people say, ‘Hey, I think we're storming,'" she said. "That breaks the tension because everyone remembers that that's OK."

—R.A. Clay