The Grand Locus / Life for statistical sciences

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Four illusions

Optical illusions come in two flavors. The one shown on the left is a classical example of a “false” perception. It looks like the grey lines are curved, but they are actually perfectly horizontal. Even if we know that the lines are horizontal, we cannot force ourselves to see them this way. I find it somewhat of a miracle that reason is strong enough to tell that the eyes are lying, but still, however long you stare at the picture, you will never see it the right way. The brain cannot learn to see this picture.

The second flavor of optical illusions is shown on the right. This picture may either represent the face of a woman, or a saxophone player. Most people immediately see one of those, and it may take them some time to see the other. But once they see it, there is no way to “unsee” it. The brain has completely forgotten how it feels to not see it and cannot unlearn to see the picture.

Vision is not the only sense that can be fooled. As a matter of fact, what is so special about optical illusions is that we realize that something is wrong with our perception — there is in general no way to tell. As much as I would like to entertain you with visual tricks, this post is again about managing a team of scientist. The path of the junior group leader is fraught with illusions that correspond to natural misconceptions that a post-doc may have upon becoming an independent scientist. We all go through a series of similar crises that vary in order and intensity, but revolve around the same themes.

They have the aspects of both kinds of illusions, once you realize that you are wrong, it will seem perfectly obvious and you cannot unlearn it. Yet you cannot learn to see the situation clearly, it takes the victory of reason over perception to see through. But the minute your attention drops, your perceptions might fool you again. Let’s lift the veil on those misconceptions.

1. They are not like me

There is no denying that it takes luck to enter the world of independent scientists. But it also takes some qualities and a particular mindset. We readily attribute our success to our intrinsic qualities, something related to the fundamental attribution error, to the point that we believe that our attitude is the only attitude that eventually leads to success.

To give a concrete example, I have always enjoyed working independently and choosing the direction of my investigations. To me, close supervision felt as a form of coercion, so it was unimaginable to inflict it upon my PhD students. Yet, I had to realize that some enjoy close supervision and without it are disoriented. It did not work for me, but it works for them.

To be fair, we do not always act this way out of delusion. As beginners, our default behavior facing a new situation is often to do what worked for us, not necessarily because we are convinced that this is the only way.

2. They are not like each other

This one may sound silly, yet it is hard to underestimate how different the members of your team are. Not only how different they are, but how different their needs are. The illusion here is that we usually want to maintain a sense of equity among the team members, which will tend to make us behave identically with everyone.

As an example I will take negative feedback. I try to use negative feedback on my team members’ work with parsimony. I believe that this weapon is dangerous to wield because it is only one step away from ego depletion and demotivation, and because it may leave a taste of inequity among my team members if I use it too often on the same person. Yet, negative feedback is not intrinsically bad, and some react well to it, so I now try to reduce it to the minimum during public meetings, but I use it to different degrees in private.

3. I am not a post-doc

This one is obvious, but the implications are far reaching. Just to be sure, I will say this again. The implications are far reaching. Whatever we liked about being a post-doc, this changes the day we become a group leader. A colleague recently told me that he had a terrible time letting go of the bench. He kept a shrine on the corner of a bench with his reagents and pipettes, which he never used. For me, it was easier to let go of the bench because I turned to bio-informatics some time ago. But I have to admit that I still code as much as in post-doc.

This would be a cute peculiarity if this illusion was just about believing that we can still do stuff ourselves. But the real danger is that we have to learn that our colleagues see us in a different way, for the good... and for the bad. As a post-doc, we are part of the group and know the gossip, we know about the fights etc. But as a group leader we are the boss, and we grow an incredible blind spot right in the center of what is happening.

To turn to my personal experience, I was shocked when I realized that some of my team members were in dissension and I learned it only after 2 weeks. How could I have missed something so obvious? Simple, they had absolutely no reason to let the boss know about it.

Knowing that you are blind does not make you see, but it makes you more cautious.

4. I am not the slave of my personality

Even though I improve with age a little, I am rather shy, introvert and unassertive. I have always envied those tall extrovert loud guys because I thought that their personality is better suited than mine to be a leader. Early after taking my new position, I took a training targeted to junior group leaders (by HFP consulting) to which attended one of those tall extrovert loud guys. As the workshop unfolded, we opened up to each other and I realized that in spite of his greatness, he considered himself the slave of his personality.

In his own words, his attitude had nothing to do with self-confidence. Far from being invincible, he admitted a certain fear of being boring. He would happily exchange his personality against mine. My jaw dragged on the floor for a couple of hours. But then I understood that no matter what your personality is, you see it as a prison.

It is very hard to change your personality, but the problem is not there. You can as well use your personality to do what you are good at, and work on improving the parts that are hard for you. Nobody has a better personality than yours.


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