Helping scientists deal with organisational change

I’ve recently been working with a team of scientists in Wellington who are moving offices and needed some help adjusting to new ways of working. Moving offices might not seem such a big deal to some, but there are plenty of challenges people can face when confronted by such a change. For some people there can be a lot going on – from frustration at management and the consultation process, to discomfort with not having an assigned desk and having to change from paper to digital references. From this group, and from many other scientists I’ve worked with, I’ve noticed a key understanding that can help scientists and their managers more easily navigate complex organisational change:

Scientists tend to be questioners – they need to understand why before they comply.

The ‘questioner’ concept comes from author Gretchen Rubin. Her book ‘The Four Tendencies’ describes the ways people deal with expectations – as Upholders, Obligers, Rebels or Questioners. Questioners struggle with things that others expect them to do but have no problem with things they expect of themselves. They need to know why they should do something, and it needs to make sense to them. Thus, to communicate a change process to questioners it pays to provide reasoning, solid logic, and preferably research to back up your approach. Sounds like the scientific process, right? May be questioning types are attracted to the sciences.

As scientists we’re taught to approach challenges from a problem-solving perspective: analyze the problem, break it down into its parts, research solutions and apply the one that fits best. Keep asking questions and don’t settle for the first answer. This works well with practical problems where you have the freedom to figure out and implement your own solution. But what happens when it’s a complex organisational change such as moving office buildings?

These sorts of changes may not make sense to questioning scientists, who are trained to solve problems with analysis, fact and logic, rather than have solutions imposed on them. With the often-slow process of organisational change they can feel frustrated and powerless to resolve things to their satisfaction. This sets up conflict between scientists and those managing the change and can result in scientists being seen as troublemakers. Worst case scenario, a culture of compliance can develop where those who ask questions are seen as not being ‘team players’.

The solution to this conflict lies in mutual understanding and open communication.

Scientists need to be aware that their own tendency to questioning is not shared by most of the population and be judicious in their use of a critical questioning approach. Managers of the change process also need to understand the needs of questioners and be aware how their own tendency might differ. They may need to adapt communication styles so they work better for questioners.

Mutual understanding can go a long way in helping smooth communication channels. When both sides listen fully and communicate honestly, management will find scientists to be excellent problem solvers. They can help find solutions to tricky situations when given the full story and a genuine mandate to make a difference. Owning up to failures and problems is helpful – unwarranted positivity is not.

If you find yourself stuck on either side of this scientist/management divide when dealing with an organisational change, maybe I can help. I offer workshops and coaching on dealing with change, specifically tailored to the scientists’ world view. By working with science teams and management I can help bridge the gap when communication breaks down. Get in touch and together we can work on a solution.

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