GET THE EDGE
The Four Keys to Coaching Scientists and Technical Experts
by Karen Switzer-Howse

Coaching within the scientific community has been largely under-utilized. The importance of science and technology is generally taken for granted; however, in a world where it has been said that the general population is nearly scientifically illiterate the various roles for science-based professionals are expanding. Our scientific and technical communities are facing new challenges, whether it's moving beyond the bench into leadership roles, starting up their own companies, or providing credible information to non-scientists. Yet their scientific training has done little to adequately prepare them for dealing with or achieving results through others.

In the past science professionals went on courses to learn how to become better communicators and leaders. But traditional leadership development programs, heavily weighted to 'learning how to lead,' have too often failed to produce the level of communication and leadership behavior needed for success.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that they must change their behavior if they want to see the results they desire—an extremely difficult thing to do, especially when their training has been counter-productive to developing strong interpersonal skills. A skilled coach who understands their unique challenges can play an important role in helping them develop the required new behaviors.

The four key areas that need to be considered and addressed by business coaches when coaching those within the science-based communities are the following:

  1. Their natural tendencies;
  2. Their training;
  3. Academia and workplace culture, and
  4. The brain's natural hard-wiring.

1. Their Natural Tendencies

People who enter the science and technology fields tend to be highly task-oriented and analytical in nature, with a strong belief in the superiority of logic, objectivity, and hard data. They become so focused on their work that they lose contact with the people around them, becoming frustrated by what they see as the illogical, emotional reactions of others.

One scientist, on becoming an executive director, remarked that she loved the job—if only she just didn't have to deal with people!

Another frustrated technical expert lamented, "I've taken all the leadership courses available, but it hasn't made any difference. People still won't do what I want!" In fact, while he had excelled academically, he had not changed his behavior, so he continued to get what he'd always received—low morale, little participation, and increasing losses.

Traditional leadership development programs, rooted in providing facts and information, are easy for them—they 'get' the information. However, turning it into behavioral change isn't necessarily on their radar screen.

Questions from a coach that help open up additional perspectives and encourage reflection on actions taken are beneficial in turning knowledge into action.

2. Their Training

Not only does traditional scientific training inadequately prepare them for dealing with others, it also often results in widening the chasm between science-based professionals and the rest of the population.

Their training tends to promote the superiority of the logical approach, discounting feelings and emotions as not appropriate to the serious work of science, while placing high reliance on case studies and theory-based learning. Success is gauged by mastery of facts, not taking action, while the development of 'independent' thinkers creates an atmosphere of competition, not co-operation.

A business coach can utilize assessments and ask the questions that help them become observers of themselves and others and discover the value of utilizing differences to leverage better results.

3. Academia and Workplace Culture

Whether in an educational or workplace setting, a science-based culture extols individual excellence as the basis of most pay, promotion, and recognition systems. Working on a team is avoided as a potentially career-limiting move.

Science is considered serious business—with little time for relationship building while high value is placed on technological fixes, mental activity, reaching conclusions, and making presentations.

One scientist recently said that even when they are working on a collaborative project, they are not really collaborating; they are always looking for the advantage, that 'something' that will give them an edge.

Working with a coach can provide an ongoing sounding board and support as they develop a more people-centric leadership approach.

4. The Brain's Natural Hard-Wiring

Research has shown that our brain functions pretty much the same way it did a thousand years ago. Much of what we do is the result of unconscious decisions that our brain is hard-wired to reduce the pressure that comes from constant change and adaptation. Robert Cooper explains that this inherent reaction to such pressure is a deeply embedded survival mechanism 'designed' to have us "do whatever is necessary to avoid stress, minimize pain, eliminate surprises, fend off uncertainty, and resist change."
 
This ancient survival response shows up as a strong resistance to change—anything that moves us out of our comfort zone is seen as a threat by our brain. Therefore scientists continue to rely on years of training in analytical skills and logic as the basis of their automatic response, discounting new information that does not support previous learning.

My experience has shown that, with coaching, they become excellent observers and are able to reflect on what is actually happening, versus what they want to happen, quickly identifying what behaviors need to be changed to get the results they want.

While not every science professional will want to move beyond the bench, the ability to be more effective in taking their expertise to a wider audience requires an improvement in communication and leadership capability. Without coaching support, much of the money spent on programs to develop these areas will fail to produce the desired results.

There is an opportunity here for business coaches to play a significant role in ensuring that the people with the science and technology expertise needed are not sub-optimized because of their natural leanings, their training, their workplace culture, and their hard-wired brain reactions.

Additional Reading:

Goleman, Daniel, Richard Boyatzis, Annie McKee. 2002. Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

Cooper, Robert K. 2006. Get Out of Your Own Way: The 5 Keys to Surpassing Everyone's Expectations. New York: Crown Business
 

Karen Switzer-Howse, BSc, founder of Quest'Ar Pathways, specializes in helping scientific and technical experts improve their effectiveness in achieving results with and through other people.  Karen can be reached by email at Karen@ThriveSynergy.com.

Return to In This Issue.
Click here to view or print entire issue for easy reading.

Copyright (C) 2007 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.