Management, Moms, and Old Boys

By Julianne Dalcanton | May 4, 2009 11:39 am

Although popular culture likes its scientists to be lone wolves, holed up in isolated labs somewhere (preferably in a basement, cave, or top secret government facility), the majority of us are part of larger teams, working together to reach a common goal. This tendency for scientists to coagulate is most prevalent in experimentalists and observers, and in those of us who have reached scientific middle age (i.e. the Committee Era). However, scientists’ education and apprenticeship includes little explicit training to prepare us for functioning within such groups — or, gawd forbid, managing them.

And thus, I read the business section of the paper. The business community is all about “working together to reach a common goal”, and they have an awful lot of experience in harnessing the energies of large groups of people. It’s by no means a perfect one-to-one map, as science tends to be much less hierarchical and formalized. However, there are insights to be learned.

Recently I was quite taken by an interview with business leader Nell Minow, who became a parent during the time that she was transitioning to management:

When I first became a professional manager, I was pregnant for the first time, and so I grew up with both responsibilities at the same time. You have people saying the same two things to you all day long, which is, “Look what I did.” And you say: “It’s really good. Do some more.” Or they say, “He took my stuff.” And you have to say, “Tell him to give it back.”

You’re constantly trying, whether you’re raising children or dealing with employees, to get them to take responsibility for their own issues. I’m not saying that in a maternalistic way, just in a way of trying to get people to take responsibility for themselves, to do the best that they can and to learn as much as they can. In both cases, you’re trying to make people more independent and bring them along.

I found this to be an incredibly succinct statement of what the best scientific mentorship looks like.

However, the next week was followed by what appears to be the anti-Nell Minow. The interview begins with the CEO of Delta describing his management revelation that it wasn’t all that helpful to lose your temper at work (you think?). But what got me riled up was part of his description of how he evaluates job candidates:

Q. What other questions do you ask?

A. You want to know about their family. Where they grew up. What their parents did. Where they went to high school. What their avocations were. How many kids they had in their family. You know, what their whole background and history is.

I learned that from a C.E.O. I worked for. The C.E.O. wouldn’t really spend that much time on the résumé, but spent most of the time wanting to know everything about the person’s life, family, what they liked, where they liked to go on vacation, what their kids were like. And it gave you a really good perspective about who they were as people.

Whooo boy. If this isn’t a recipe for overlooking Talent that Doesn’t Look Like You, I don’t know what is. Suppose the candidate is a polyamorous gay man who was raised in a circus, but happens to be a whiz at selling widgets to the masses. Or heck, is a run of the mill single mom. Now, maybe I’m not giving him enough of a benefit of the doubt, as he may indeed be looking for a holistic view of the candidate’s motivations (“Polyamorous? Raised in a circus? Sounds like he’d be flexible and good at managing change!”). But, I can’t help but think his focus on intangibles over resume might reflect some attitudes that Zuska would consider worthy of shoe-puking.

  • Mike Haubrich, FCD

    I once had an HR person review my resume for me, and there was a time when I had no employment. I left it blank, but she told me to specify unemployed because HR people make the assumption that such “blank time” equals “time in jail.”

  • Brad

    Not to mention the fact that most of those personal details can’t legally be asked during the interview process…

  • Neal J. King

    wrt background questions: An important issue in the business world is that often the “technical”/intellectual aspects of the job are not nearly as important as the social/political aspects. So, however distasteful it may be for the CEO to focus on aspects that may inform him about the candidates fit to the team, it may be appropriate (not legally, but practically).

    In scientific circles, the technical aspects play a much larger role. In fact, someone can be borderline paranoid schizophrenic and still be a great mathematician (e.g. Gödel).

  • Dr. Kate

    As far as I understand it, at least in the US, it’s illegal to ask a person about where they come from during a job interview–basically to ask them anything about anything that might be a protected class (race, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation in some states, etc).

    At least, we’re told at our company not to ask those kinds of questions of interviewees. We’re not even allowed to comment on a person’s address, or ask things like “So what’s your favorite part of Boston?” or “Oh, you studied in France? What do you think of French politics?” (You are, of course, allowed to ask about the relevant educational experiences that happened in France–just nothing else.)

    It might not be specifically illegal, but it certainly opens you up to a lawsuit to ask those kinds of questions. You ask a candidate to tell you about where he grew up in the interview, and then you decide he’s not the most qualified, and he sues you for racial or ethnic discrimination.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I should think that a skilled interviewer would be able to steer the conversation such that the interviewee voluntarily discloses personal detail without specific prompting. It happens to me frequently. Otherwise, there are entire books written about innocuous questions one can ask interviewees to try to insure group cohesion.

    It’s a really difficult balance to strike, and essentially boils down to the pros and cons of groupthink. Get people who are too sympatico, and inevitably you’ve got the blind leading the blind. But I’ve been in the “team of rivals” version of “group” dynamics, and “clusterfrak” is the most family-friendly term I can think of to describe it. It’s really hard to say no when everybody loves each other. It’s excruciating to say yes when you actively hate some or all of your colleagues.

    Actually, given how hard it is to find that perfect balance, maybe the best approach is to stop trying so hard and require all managers to take a semester of conflict resolution.

  • locke

    Nobody really likes to work with a jerk, unless of course that jerk can a) make you rich or b) help you win a Nobel. You may not actually LIKE that person, but you’ll tolerate him/her under those conditions.
    Though personal questions as described by the second business person are certainly illegal, and rightfully so, in most contexts in the States, what the person is really trying to find out is whether they can stand to work with that person. We all do the same when we interview someone for an academic position even if we don’t ask illegal questions: we talk about non-work related stuff, we take the candidate to lunch and dinner etc. etc. The technical differences between candidates are often so tiny that the hiring decision often just comes down to that: do I want to work with this person for the next 20 years? Most of you won’t believe this, but in some academic hiring environments you’re allowed to do NONE of the above. You listen to a 20 minute presentation, ask some work-related questions (often in an environment that can only be described as inquisitional), read a cv and then decide. If you think that’s a recipe for incredibly bad decisions, then you’re correct.

  • Jacob Wintersmith

    What is “shoe-puking”?

  • Ciaobella

    Julianne, good thing you’ve got tenure and therefore never have to imagine applying for a job at, say, Delta, where someone like Anderson calls the rules. The rest of us non-ivory-tower folks have to suck up to the likes of Anderson, or else flip burgers very quickly, or both.

  • Nell Minow

    Many thanks for the wonderful mention! I’m glad you enjoyed my interview. I believe that with children and with employees, the goal should be to impart a sense of purpose and a sense of mastery. If you can do that, the people will be satisfied and productive.

    Thanks again!

  • joulesm

    I was under the impression that it is illegal to ask such questions during an interview because they can be used to (consciously or unconsciously) discriminate against an potential employee. Even questions like, “when did you graduate from college” are considered taboo because it gives the employer a rough guess on your age. I can understand getting to know the employees work-style and family situation AFTER getting hired, but it’s sketchy beforehand.

    Can someone who has expertise clarify on whether or not such questions can be asked during an interview??

  • capitalistimperialistpig

    Whooo boy. If this isn’t a recipe for overlooking Talent that Doesn’t Look Like You, I don’t know what is.

    But most managers are not in the business of discovering hidden or secret talents – they are in the business of finding people who will fit in and contribute to specific organizational goals. The best clues to those useful traits (so the executive quoted thought) are background, personality and character. The occasional useful freak will need to distinguish himself with his/her talent.

    Hiring an employee is not like recruiting a “balanced” freshman class. Universities, especially rich universities, can afford to waste a number of admittances on improbable characters, because students are cheap and you don’t have much invested in them. A bad hire for a manager is much more costly. He/she can disrupt the function of your organization for months, or sometimes years, not to mention the expense and grief of firing them.

  • JB

    I know that as an interview-ee this tactic must sound horrible. How can you turn a person down not based upon professional credentials but their ability to fit in with the team. I also think that our esteemed author is actually construing a causality here that doesn’t necessarily exist. I think I might comment on that first:

    You can’t necessarily say that just because the person’s specific details do not match the overall social culture that the person wouldn’t be hired. As a matter of fact Gay Circus raising may be just the specific difference that would help round out the group culture. Many times as the CEO of a middle-sized business I look for diversity specifically. Someone that is too culturally boxed in, is not a good fit for us. So while you may be correct in that Delta is hiring only ‘like-minded’ people I don’t think it’s something you can assume.

    Secondly I have personally found that I’d rather have someone with the right attitude than someone with the best credentials. I can’t tell you how many uber-engineers I’ve hired only to find them a drag on the entire project. They can’t get along or communicate with people then the project can fall apart. Especially if your looking for a leader in the team. Often for me it’s important to understand the person more holistically than just go over their credentials. When I see a person holisitically I can find more specific opportunity for their contribution to the team. Or if they seem unable to communicate well, in a friendly way, about issues that are not very complex I know that no matter how smart or capable they wouldn’t be a good fit for a team. Great on lone-projects but a bad team member.

    And then you wind up in the worst possible situation. Having to release a very capable individual for their inability to get along with or work with their other team members. Incredibly disappointing.

  • bane

    I have to say that the issues that you’ve highlighted seem like the most trivial ones in scientific management. For me the biggest deficiency I’ve had in working with managers (as an employee) is their failure to understand that all the people involved in the “project” are not naturally working for the same goal (partly because the evaluation criteria for various people are different: a post-doc needs is better off fewer publishing papers that someone actually reads and thinks are good, whereas the higher levels of the project are better served by volume of papers, etc), and thus there needs to be explicit managing of things so that enough of everyone’s natural goals are being acheived via explicit trade-offs that people are prepared to do work that’s not immediately advancing their natural goals in the knowledge it’ll be respected and hopefully repaid by others. The worst managers have been people who firmly believe that the big project has a goal, refuse to see (in a charming way) that this isn’t the situation but insist that “we’re all working together” and yet never actually do any work that goes beyond their personal goal.

    In a way I see it as almost the reverse of treating people as children you need to nurture: you need to treat all the other people in the project as adults who can deal with the nasty trade-offs in the situation if their treated on almost equal footing, even if that means you don’t get the warm fuzzy feeling of being a pseudo-parent.

  • Puffy Paff

    Have you ever heard of Caltech’s Rotation?

    This is the best form of interviewing, and the one form that teaches early-on exactly what the purpose of an interview is: all sides learn through mutual interaction if they can benefit one another.

    True, the technical credentials are there- you are smart.
    True, the social credentials is what is under the microscope, which in the business world would be illegal.

    But, the manner of interaction is what identifies the Fit-ins from the Don’t-fit-ins and the Fits-me from the Doesn’t-fit-me.

    The questions upper classmen asked themselves when ‘interviewing’: can this person ease ‘work’ pressure in the house, get along with enough folks in the house, participate in social events, work as a team during interhoues events?

    The question frosh ask themselves: can I do work with these folks at three in the morning? Would i enjoy their social events? Sports events? Would I be respected, or dragged down to habits I don’t like…

    And with this very simple one week process, all tech undergrads have the power to interview well. We ask more questions, we inquire more about the working environment, and ultimately we are not afraid to decline an offer…

  • Julianne

    Just for the record, I’m a firm believer that “fit” issues are important in assessing job candidates (for long-term or mission-critical positions in particular). However, the “fit” issues are limited to “how someone acts in the workplace”, and not “where their kids go to school” or “what their spouse does for a living” or “what hobbies they have”. So, I agree with 99% of JB’s comments, while still thinking that the Delta CEO is out of line.

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  • mary

    honestly, there could be much more focus “fit” issues during faculty hiring in academia…it would really cut down on the so called `geniuses’ who are complete a**holes with awkward/erratic social skills. The list of such douchebags across universities is huge!

  • costanza

    Neal J King: That’s ot necessarily true. According to law, a prospective employer isn’t allowed to inquire into one’s mental status, but eventually it becomes known. I have manic-depressive illness, and in one university it made no difference, and in two others I experienced a highly hostile environment. Altho there are exceptions (Godel, Nash and some others) these are Very Much the exception.


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