Thursday, July 14, 2011

When your "boss" costs you money

I have an unusual committee arrangement for my PhD. I am co-advised by a group of people, and then have additional committee members. That means that every publication, every piece of paper related to my degree has to be passed by a number of hands to be submitted.

I chose the members of my advisement team during a moment of considerable weakness. I think that is why my many advisors have personality traits that I would avoid in real life. Two of these advisors are a particularly difficult to deal with. They

a) are persistently disorganized
b) frequently yell a staff/students
c) manipulate and personally insult staff/students
d) panic and demand your immediate appearance at the drop of a hat
e) reorganize experiments, suddenly change direction and change back

Now, I'm a tough cookie, so at this point I'm willing to eat a,b and c. I'm not willing to eat d and e. Why? Because d and e cost me money.

How does their panic, forgetfulness and lack of organization cost me money

a) I often have to pay for costly reagent shipping out of my own pocket
b) My presence is often demanded within minutes - regardless of schedule - so I am expected to pay for a $20+ cab ride to various offices and apartments....often to discuss and achieve nothing
c) I have had to dig into my own pocket to attend whatever conferences they wanted me to attend. I will have to dig into my own pocket for publications as well
d) a portion of my grant money was spent on their spur of the moment decisions and retractions about experiments....until I put my foot down.

While I was a new student. I did whatever they said. As recently as two months ago, I was spending $100s jumping in and out of cabs whenever they decided I needed to be in a particular place at a particular time to do....nothing. My attitude at the time was "what ever gets me through the degree/job".

I've since had an epiphany.

This is my money. My time.

I will not waste it.

So - here is how I'm dealing with my costly bosses

I say "no"

Yup. When my advisors demand my immediate presence with no forewarning, I simply go when I am able. I don't rush to their offices. No one is bleeding to death. I check for scheduling conflicts. I tell them when I am available and I show up on time. I do not tell them why I unavailable at other times. That provides a foot in the door to discuss why I should be immediately present. Procrastinators, like my bosses, are prone to spreading their anxiety and making deliberate attempts to induce anxiety in others. I simply tell them when I can show up and I show up at that time.

I am not friends with my bosses

I picked this up this tip while working for a particularly invasive boss in 2002. I am happy to see it reiterated on PsychCentral. I do not try to establish a friendship with my bosses. I don't share personal information. I don't tell them where I live. They have never met my husband. Ostensibly, an employee should keep their personal lives private to maintain a professional decorum. I, however, have had an inordinate number of emotional manipulative and abusive bosses, so I keep my private life under wraps in an attempt to create some emotional distance. My husband and my home are my safe place, where I do not have to engage with my bosses if I do not want to.

Once I have a better sense of how a boss operates, I'll start to let information slip and might even visit home etc.. In my experience, few bosses are capable of being both friends and productive bosses. Why risk your own financial and emotional health? There are plenty of other people that I can call friends.

I think for myself

One of the reasons I was susceptible to my advisors panicked back and forth approach to experiments was that I was distracted. I balanced a high teaching load with lab work. When my advisors would ask me to do one experiment that required three days of work and then yell 1 day "where are the results", I too would panic and mindlessly set up experiments. The experiments would fail and more yelling and panic would ensue.

I stopped the cycle by thinking for myself. Every boss/employee advisor/student relationship is different. In my case, I just stopped answering emails while I was still researching and planning an experiment. I certainly considered their advice. My advisors are more experienced than I am. They are very smart and successful people. It's just that our communication was destructive. I needed to find a way to mitigate the destruction until I could produce some useful experiments. It didn't take long. I only needed 3 weeks of carefully calculated communication and thinking/experiment time to produce something that worked. Before that time I had spent almost 16 months in this panic/experiment cycle.

I eventually found a way to cut back on teaching as well, which also helped. Basically, I decided that to think for myself I would have to provide myself with time to think. My success was directly correlated to comfortable time to think and plan. Yelling, panicked emails, teaching - all distractions keeping me from my goal.

I don't take their insults personally

I raced to their offices because I didn't want to disappoint my bosses. I spent $1000s on shipping costs and cabs because I wanted to keep things calm and steady. I could have spent $100 000s, it wouldn't matter. People yell at other people out of self-entitlement. I could have delivered a Nature paper on top of a birthday cake at every lab meeting, my advisors would still yell, lodge personal insults and manipulate. It is who they are as bosses.

It is not, however, who I am.

They misbehave and I refuse to engage. I stay on topic. I don't take it personally.

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