If your research is to have any hope of being successful, you'll need the help of others. You may be tempted to work exclusively with the lab mates you have a good rapport with and ignore those you find hard to deal with, despite their valuable knowledge and skills. But your lab life will be more productive if you learn how to collaborate with people whose personalities, work methods, and ideas differ radically from your own.
It's a safe bet that some people in your lab are a lot different from you. A first step toward getting along with your lab mates (or anyone, for that matter) is acknowledging that they may be hard-wired to approach problems in a certain way. Perhaps they're more (or less) outspoken, or they repeatedly overlook a project's fine points for the big picture, whereas you're a stickler for details.
Psychologists have attempted to categorize the key aspects of personality in a variety of ways. One of the most popular is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI); you may have even taken this test at some point in your schooling or working life. The test categorizes people as introverts ( I) or extroverts ( E); driven by intuition ( N) or sensation ( S); thinkers ( T) or feelers ( F); and finally as planners who want to draw conclusions (judgers-- J), or as people who are more comfortable in a chaotic environment and want to keep things open (perceivers-- P).
The MBTI has seen its share of criticism, but corporations and institutions still find the test useful in making hiring decisions and assembling teams. Here, we'll look at the personality types within each of the four MBTI categories, give our interpretation of how those personalities might appear in the lab, and discuss how opposites can best get along. The point is not to label other people: No one likes being put into a box with a sticker on it. It's more about awareness. If you're aware of the different personality types and know which one you are, it will be easier to recognize and seek input from other personalities to create balance.
1. What energizes you? Extrovert versus introvert
The key question of this category is where you get your energy. At the end of a long day, are you energized by a social event (which would make you an extrovert), or do you recharge by having some quiet time to yourself (which would indicate that you are introverted)? In meetings, Es talk, listen, think, and then talk again. Action comes first, then reflection, then further action. In contrast, Is start by reflecting on the issue at hand, then talking, then thinking again.
Throw these different personalities into a lab meeting, and you might observe mutual irritation. The extroverted team members have the feeling that the introverted team members are passive and uninvolved, whereas the introverts may be irritated that the extroverts push ahead without giving careful thought to the issues.
Awareness of different personality types, and mutual respect, will smooth out collaborations. To get the most out of a group meeting, the Is should let the Es talk because that's how they develop their opinions. Although somewhat unnatural to Is, they should ask questions of the Es and respond to their preliminary proposals. Talking and responding out loud helps Es develop their opinions. On the other hand, Es need to hold back and let the Is digest the information and make sure they have a chance to contribute. One way to do this is to pause. The introvert team members will launch their ideas when the Es stop talking. A few seconds will do the job.
2. How you think: Intuition versus sensation
The MBTI broadly divides the way you think about things into two tendencies: sensation-preferring ( S) people are fact based, whereas intuition-based ( N) people recall the past in terms of patterns. Ss recall facts from the past, rely on facts in the present, and want to know the facts for the future. Ns dream of exploring the future with all its possibilities; the details of the present interest them little.
In the lab, misunderstandings and poor communication between intuitive thinkers and sensation-oriented people inhibit progress. Yet most projects need both types of people. In the absence of sensation-type characters, the project will lack the data or facts on which a big picture should be based. On the other hand, a team including only sensation-oriented people might fail to produce innovative goals, or to stay focused on what they're out to prove in the first place.
Again, respecting and acknowledging the contributions of people with opposite preferences is key to avoiding conflicts in a team. You can improve the team's progress by asking for the contribution of your opposite type. After sketching the global picture as an N, you can trigger the sensation-type team members to contribute by asking to what extent the facts support the picture you suggested. If you are an S, you should discuss the observations you have made in the lab and ask the Ns involved what picture they see emerging.
3. Are your decisions driven by objective arguments or feelings?
Thinkers ( Ts) are more likely to choose or make decisions based on impersonal information. In contrast, feelers ( Fs) make decisions that tend to be subjective, based on their value system, and take account of their decision's impact on others.
Science is based on facts, so science and science-related fields probably attract more thinkers ( Ts). However, there may be a number of feelers in your lab, and they can play an important role in thinker-dominated teams. Because thinkers make decisions based on logic and reason, the input of feelers (who use feelings and subjectivity in their decision-making process) can round out the process. There are some instances, even in research, where gut feeling and intuition have value. So if you're a thinker who prefers a rational, logical approach, try to be open to--and not frustrated by--the more intuitive side to decision making when confronted with a feeler.
4. Chaotic group members versus planners
Some people like to plan their actions in terms of tasks and targets; others work best if they're surrounded by chaos. The MBTI calls the former judging ( J) characters and the latter perceivers ( P). Whereas Js dislike stress and try to avoid it by planning their activities, Ps work best under some time pressure and get energized once the deadline is looming.
Judgers and perceivers will use different approaches in planning a new project. Judgers typically make lists and like to check off completed actions, whereas perceivers thrive on being spontaneous and flexible. Each type might become irritated by the approaches of their counterparts, but in a respectful collaboration a mixed team has an enormous advantage over a team with only Ps or Js. Perceivers love looking at the big picture, so they may start thinking about a project in a general sense and save the details for later. They may start gathering information without a clear plan for how they'll use it. Judgers, on the other hand, want to make a plan outlining the goals and defining the steps to get there. Once they have a plan, Js start feeling more relaxed. The deadline-driven Ps will step up closer to the project's deadline.
So to work together effectively, Ps need to recognize that Js need structure. Js have to learn to respect the apparently chaotic contributions of perceivers and perhaps encourage them to utilize a more systematic approach. Next time you're planning a project, note how the different people in your group approach the question at hand. Rather than let those differences be a source of tension, guide the discussion so that the approaches complement each other.
Knowing your own strengths--and weaknesses--as well as those of others is the first step in getting the most out of any group project. Creating a pleasant and productive environment for collaboration with both your natural friends and those who are different--but whom you are more or less obliged to get along with--will make your life in graduate school that much easier.
Patricia Gosling and Bart Noordam are the authors of Mastering Your Ph.D.: Survival and Success in the Doctoral Years and Beyond (Springer, 2006). Gosling is a senior medical writer at CMPMedica in Malaysia and a freelance science writer. Noordam is a professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and director of a regional audit organization. He has also worked for McKinsey & Co.
Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.