Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Ways to deal with bullies

As a longtime fan of Buffy and the internet, I'm finally getting around to watching Felicia Day and friends in The Guild. It's a silly little show, but pretty funny.

Somewhere in the middle of the second season, our heroes are confronted with a group of bullies.

Initially, their fearful and temporary leader, Codex, tries diplomacy. This only serves to rile up the bullies even more.

Then their regular leader, Vork, returns from his soul-searching to announce that he is a great leader because everyone hates him. I think the insightful point here is that if you're going to lead, you have to be able to handle the fact that you can't please everyone all the time. SO true.

Rather than trying to make friends with the bullies, or have a peaceful solution, Vork decides they need to have a throwdown.

But, ironically, Vork gets killed early in the battle. And Codex ends up winning and saving her team. Yay! Go girl power!

Still, I'm writing about this because I found the original outcome is more like real life. Negotiating with the bully will only make you look weaker.

And there are rarely situations where you can muster up the force necessary to confront and beat down a bully in science. More likely, if you're lucky, time will tell. But who has that much time? I don't.

From what I can tell, the only other option is to be sneaky. Don't try to negotiate, and don't try to fight openly.

Personally, sneaky is not something I do very well, nor is it something I enjoy. But I was thinking about this today when I realized this is how I learned to deal with my parents. They tend to be controlling and opinionated, which tends to undermine my confidence even now, even if they don't actually hold the purse strings to my freedom like they did for the first half of my life.

So instead I learned to lie by omission. Oh sure, eventually I tell them most things, but after the fact, when it's too late for them to judge or intervene.

My thesis advisor had to actually coach me on how to disobey in lab. I was instructed that, even if I was told not to do something, didn't mean I shouldn't do it anyway. (And then brag about the results later.)

But I'm reaching a point in my career where the degree of sneaky is really much greater than my natural affinity for this approach. Figuring out how to sneak your papers past the nasty editors and reviewers at the evil bully journals? Figuring out how to sneak your grant into a study section that won't realize they just funded you to work on something really controversial?

I really don't know how people learn to do this. Or are all successful scientists bullies and liars? I don't really think this is true, but I do wonder if the good people doing science have survived by working underground, like sneaky little elves.

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At 10:20 AM, Blogger steph said...

You sound like the Republicans when Obama talks about opening up dialogue with the various "axis of evil" countries.

Diplomacy is hard but you can't spend your whole life fighting battles or being sneaky.

At 2:14 PM, Blogger canadian52 said...

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At 5:53 PM, Blogger Girlpostdoc said...

HippieHusband is dealing with a massive bully who lies and is completely inconsistent. He is super powerful at the university (read: is the head of a 10million grant that doles out grant monies to faculty in the dept). From what I can tell, sneakiness just doesn't work. Bullies are power hungry alpha males (even in the case of a female). The only thing you can do is to avoid them or defer to them. All the advice we have gotten is get out as fast as you can. If you're on your way to becoming tenured, in a department with a tenured bully - I think that's a little more difficult.

At 11:41 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

no, see, steph, the thing is, unlike Bush, I've ALWAYS TRIED DIPLOMACY FIRST.

I just thought it was interesting to consider the possibility that, with some people, every interaction just gives them more ammunition to use against you. Which I think with some bullies is actually true. And I'm sure I would have already known this if I had gone to school for espionage instead of science.

FWIW, I can't say I'm all that pleased with the progress Obama has made in ending our involvement in the Middle East, either. Oh wait, that's because he HASN'T. Is it because of lack of diplomacy? Or they haven't been diplomatic enough? Or maybe it has nothing to do with diplomacy? hmm?

Girlpostdoc, that's just it. I think the only way to outmaneuver these types is to be more sneaky than they are. And I'm not sure that's a skill you can easily level up! Seems like you'd have to be willing to die a lot to gain experience points.

Otherwise you better make a run for it.

But that's one of the scary things about tenure - it gives you some security, but it also means the bullies are entrenched and almost impossible to get rid of.

I have heard stories of a few brave people who gave up their tenure just to move somewhere new. That would be pretty scary in some ways, I would think, but I can understand why it might be preferable to staying in a situation where your "colleagues" steal your lunch money every single day.

At 8:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

while I hear what you're saying about having to be sneaky because giving in to the bully doesn't do any good (it just means they win, all the time and you get nothing) and diplomacy doesn't do any good (because they don't care for anything except what they want), at the same time I wonder how feasible it is to sneak around? Is it even possible? If you need to buy expensive supplies or pay for equipment time to get your work done, how can you do that in secret without being found out or denied access to begin with?

I work in a national lab and here it's even harder to be sneaky about anything because there's a paper trail for everything and if there's no paper trail then nothing can be done. No way to sneakily submit a manuscript without your bosses' knowledge because just to submit a manuscript anywhere requires a whole panel be convened to internally review your manuscript first or you will be in violation of federal law for releasing classified information without permission. I know people - scientists - here who are so afraid to step out of bounds and even buy a pencil without filling out the proper forms ahead of time. (my boss is actually one of them and he would always freak out if I truly innocently forgot to follow protocol by filling out the right forms before doing something) That is so sad. Well at least be glad you work in a university and don't have this extra layer of pointless obstacles!!

At 9:58 PM, Anonymous labbrat said...

Hi MsPhD,

You don't have to approve this comment - I was just wondering whether you saw this article:


It's about grad school in the humanities, but this almost-done biology grad student doesn't see much difference (except, possibly, that a long Ph.D. is biology is considered 6-7 years, not 10-12). Oh, and a bit of irony - I am almost-done because I can't start final experiments until my passive-aggressive-bully PI gives me approval. Fun times.

At 10:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The lab head here is a total bully. He is the head of the department, an endowed chair, and is untouchable. That said, he has pushed out several (tenured) PI's in his dept., while promoting his cronies. Unfortunately for me, I got on his shitlist by not being BFF's with his pet lab fixtures. I asked him if he would support my postdoc training after my fellowship ends and he said that sponsoring me on another postdoc fellowship would not help my career. He then outlined the 3 career possibilities: industry, teaching, academic research, but he was really gunning for the first 2 options. I don't know how to deal with such a hardcore bully other than to leave and start over somehow.

At 11:19 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

anon 8:20, yeah. It's possible if your science is cheap and/or if your boss is a busy bully who doesn't have time to micromanage until it's too late to stop you. heh heh heh.

the national lab thing is scary. This is why I would never want a government job. Me and rules don't really get along.

labrat, Yes, I saw that. Hang in there. Been there, hated that.

Anon 10:46, First, let me just say THAT SUCKS.

I like that phrase, "pet lab fixtures". I've noticed this type is pretty common - they love to have slaves, and hate anyone who actually wants to, I don't know, take over their job when they retire. They can't face their own aging, much less career mortality. So they'd actually prefer to employ only the ones who want to go into teaching or industry, because there's no threat there. In some ways I think it contributes to the dumbing-down of science, not because people who want to teach or go into industry are in any way less smart- but because the smart ones WILL go away, and who's left in academia? Only the ones the bullies think are too stupid to ever get a job on our own merits? Yah, great.

At 9:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OMG!! I LOOOOVEE you, this blog and all the people out there who suddenly turned on the lights for me!! I thought it was me. I was unlucky, I was stupid, I was___. They tell you that, just like abusive parents tell their kids it's their fault and the poor kids believe them. And we wonder how those kids don't see the truth. Thank you so much for being my oasis in the desert. My post doc boss was such an asshole (GOD it feels good to finally say it!). A controlling, manipulative delusional fuck who tried to push me out of science to promote his own agenda. I have been stupid for so long, but I am finally finding my feet. Thank you (all of you) for showing me that all the ups and downs I've experienced were totally valid! I only hope to pay it forward.

At 6:48 AM, Blogger mojo said...

In response to "get out as fast as you can." I had the same thing said to me after 3 months on a postdoc. Female PI, bully, 9/10 male /female in the group. I was the most technically experienced person brought in and quickly became the target of all kinds of weird stuff. I took the advice after being accused of something crazy (i worked in a lab ALONE so no one even saw what I did). I realized this person was a narc. and could be very dangerous so I left and never looked back. One person had a wise quote: They are protecting their level of incompetence. I like that.

P.S. Be ware of those who say they are "all about promoting women in science" they are not about promoting you, it just sounds good.
In the end they are the ones who only want the dumbed-down version around them - right back to that's who's left. People who can't have a real conversation about a project and talk about their personal lives WAY too much.

At 3:48 AM, Anonymous Buy Research Paper said...

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At 10:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

" controlling, manipulative delusional fuck who tried to push me out of science to promote his own agenda. "

same here, my postdoc advisor pushed me out of science deliberately to promote his own agenda (I guess he felt threatened by me). Postdoc vs. PI - you really can't win even if you are in the right and your PI is being unethical because you're not even a 'real person' in this screwed up system.

At 4:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am so glad i found this post, I am having the same problems with my PI. He tells me stuff like, I've seen better work from high school students. High school students I helped out. He has never said one nice thing to me during this postdoc and just put me down. My old PI from grad school wanted me to stay on to do a postdoc with him. I can't be that bad if he wanted me. It's hard to believe in one's self when your PI is so hard on you. My conclusion, he is stupid/lacking in knowledge and has nothing to offer me but insults. No insight from this guy....


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