Friday, August 24, 2012

Mentoring equation

While I am in the train of thoughts about my work related issues, I think it would be easier to discuss further about my mentoring philosophy following my last post.  Nowadays, teachers cannot spank kids anymore, nor criticize them in obvious ways so that we don't running into the risk of killing their self-confidence or esteem, whichever words that are usually used by people who deal with mental health issues.  As a combined tiger mother and educator, I try my best to push my kids to reach the highest possible bar that suitable for their potentials.  One day when I was surfing the Internet for mentoring tips, I found the following equation to define great leaders:

80% praises + 20% criticisms = success

Some wise man said also to focus on top performers and challenge them often since "Learning by itself is highly motivational.  If you focus most of your attention on mentoring your weakest links, you will accidentally place an artificial ceiling on the performance of your group.  Your top performers will be bored and jump the ship, leaving your team with a talent drain that reinforces long term mediocrity."

I need to take this to heart!!!

I started my teaching job at a boarding school in China in 1982.  The general formula for us teachers at that time and place was 80% criticisms and 20% praises - exact the opposite to what is shown above.  Because we were taught that modesty makes one progress yet conceit drags one behind (谦虚使人进步, 骄傲使人落后).  Thus the 80% of criticisms is there to keep you from being dragged behind!

The first school that I taught at is one of the only two key schools in the city and the kids were selected based on their academic excellences from various schools of the city of Nanning, the capital of Guangxi province.  I was a "class master" then, which means that on the top of teaching subject of biology to 2 different age groups of kids (13 yo middle schoolers and 16 yo high schoolers), I had also to babysit one 13-yo-class of 64 kids.  Teaching subject in a classroom setting part was a piece of cake as I was born a stereotypical extrovert who feared/respected/admired teachers - see their impact on my career choice here?  I have treated many of my teachers as role models growing up and must have subconsciously trained myself to be one of them.  By the time at the senior level in Guangxi Normal University, I was already chosen to show my peers how the job should be done.  The babysitting part, however, was a bit difficult.  It required me to get up early in the morning to make sure that all my 64 kids were out of the bed on time and to sleep late in the night to check out whether they were quiet after the light out.  I am a night person and could hardly get up on time myself most of the mornings!  Therefore, I often skipped the morning routine.

Part of the job duties as a class master is to infusing moral and social values to the little minds of my students, by which I mean that I washed the brain of my kids with Mao's moral standards.  Mao had banned all forms of religion ever since he took over the political power in China in 1949.  One of the many important slogans written by Mao was/is, "hao hao xue xi, tian tian xiang shang! 好好学习,天天向上!" [study (xie xi) well (hao), progress (xiang shang) daily (tian tian)]."  I developed numerous ways to recite this repeatedly, at least weekly, if not daily!  The most common way to do so was going through the following routine every week: each weekend before I sent them home to their parents, I would have a "summary/conclusion" meeting with the whole class.  It usually took about a good hour or two for me to do so.  I would often start with a short talk preaching about my view of life happiness, follow by how I would like to pursue it by setting realistic and achievable goals, and then ask my kids to reflect themselves.  They would need to do so by writing.  They recorded the "goods" and "bads" of themselves and importantly the aspects that they would need to improve in the week to come.  Finally, it came the high of the meeting: naming my kids as famous people.  Kids and I all had a lot of fun doing just that!  Like in a comedy show, I would call my kids with some names that they knew, they would just simply laughed at that the entire time - they enjoyed being called Einstein, Seiji Ozawa, Beethoven, 陈景润 (Chen jungrun), Michael Jackson, Maradona, 郎平 (Lang Ping)...  Unlike Americans, we did not have "Chinese Dreams".  We Chinese are generally practical and realistic and usually do not think famous people are real - they seem to be made-up characters, thus, laughable.  After a round of laughs, they would be quiet down to expect me to become serious.  They knew that I would not let them go home without the delivery of my criticisms.  To criticize them, I tried to be emotionally serious but keep it simple, quick, and specific.  One of the many advantages working in a key school is that most of the students are already quite hard on themselves, they usually only need to be reminded not be criticized.  Thus, I simply played with their natural guilty consciences by touching upon issues without naming anyone specific - "pointing at problem not at person (对事不对人)".  As far as I remember, my bike tires only were flattened once in the years of my teaching period.  This is a great accomplishment since letting go of the air in teachers' bike was a common way that our students' demonstrate their frustrations with us in China at that time.  

I no longer follow the 80% praises and 20% criticisms nowadays.  The new equation is:

80% praises + 20% exaggerated praises = working my own ass off!

Teaching graduate students to conduct medical research in U.S. medical schools nowadays is almost not rewarding.  The problem is that we are not paid to teach, instead, we need pay our students to learn from us.  What the hell?!  Alright, let me clarify.  Many of our students are already trained in their undergraduate school.  By the time they are in graduate school working in our research labs, they have already acquired quite a bit of skills, thus, are deserved to be paid with minimal wages.  In order to maintain an active research lab so that our students can have a platform to learn, we need to get funds to pay our students' stipend, tuition, and and health insurance.  Since I work at a private institute, I also need to come up with almost 100% of my own salary.  Therefore, you can imagine my job duties are mainly acquiring and securing funds.  My daily life is now sitting tight in front of computer, staring the screens either writing research grants, reviewing grants, writing manuscripts, or reviewing manuscripts, day in and day out!  There is not much of "teaching by demonstration" time interacting with my students anymore.  They need to make appointments with me, if they want my undivided attention and time.  So, the best students are the ones who are willing to practice trial and error - the autopilots.

Not so bad, you say, given research work is repetitive and experimenting anyways.  Right, I cannot agree more.

When do we teach, exactly, you ask?

The answers is we teach at the meeting time with our students.  We usually sit down with them, one-on-one, to review their experimental data, adjust the hypothesis, and most importantly to easy their frustrations from unfamiliar techniques.  Because experiments often fail.

This also means that we need to a new set of teaching skills.  Ever heard of "the art of leadership is the art of getting things done through other people"?

Getting things done through other people requires us to trust others to be as competent as us who have been trained for years on the bench!  The competency in performing biomedical research comes with practice.  It requires more resilient than intelligence because easy and obvious experiments are mostly done by our previous investigators.  Our students' daily life is usually consisted of demonstrating their capability to repeat published works in the beginning for a year or two, then to acquire novel and unpublished data in the subsequent years, and finally to publish their data.  To live a life like that, they have their own shares of frustrations.  They need us to work side-by-side with them from time to time to show them how experiments are done, yet they do not get enough of our presence because we do not work at bench anymore.  We are hiding in our office struggling with our research dollars to feed them!

Therefore, the 20% exaggerated praises are used to encourage the willingness of our kids to get over the frustrations of failing yet another crucial set of experiments.

Is there any drawback of such exaggerated praises, you ask?  Of course.  My improper praising weak performers may lead to long term mediocrity.  That is why I am here writing about this.  The quality of research work can also be dangerously deteriorated because of my decreased times shared with my mentees.  I need new workable strategies by replacing the 20% exaggerated praises with carefully delivered expectations, goals, improvements that I would like my mentees to reach.  Maybe this elaborated formula about mentoring could work (adapted from an old article)?

M - Model (Boy, we are making little clones of us)
E - Empathize (Sure, as long as you are not discouraged!)
N - Nurture (Food and money, where are you?)
T - Teach (Wake up, kids)
O - Organize (You too, be prepared when you come to my office)
R - Respond (Listen up, if you are one of the introverts)
I - Inspire (with my charming persona, Ha ha!)
N - Network (with our published papers, so work hard to get more data!)
G - Goal-set (and share with me, kids)

There you have it!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Knowing when to shut up!

Asking provocative questions with an authoritative tone is my standard style when I comment on others'  work at scientific meetings.  I am often even too lazy to sugar coat what I have to say when I spit out negative critiques.  Part of it is the side effect of my job and my underlying belief is that provocation is the most effective way in getting the message across to a group of staff.  According to my ancestors, "bitter medicine is better cure for illness (苦口良药利于病)"!  No, you have not heard about this wise Chinese Saying before?  Well, now you do!  Indeed, a provocation delivered in a constructive manner engages and inspires meeting participants.  It's an art to be able to bring about a perfect provocation without being taken as an offensive remark and leading to overreactions.  Another part of it is my personality, which I can hardly do much about it.

We, several principal investigators, hold a joint lab meeting regularly every Friday to discuss about our research projects and report our progresses.  At such meetings, 1-2 persons, mostly our students and postdoctoral fellows (the trainees) and sometimes us PIs, give presentations while the rest of the participants challenge the speakers with critical questions.  This type of meetings is very important part of our professional life since they sharpen our presentation skills and equip us with public defense capabilities.  If you are a scientist, you probably are attending such meetings regularly and you understand that in order to take full advantage of these meetings, speakers need to spend good amount of time to prepare slides, organize data, and even practice a few times to make sure they can attract the attendee's attention.  A good reason to invest time on preparation is because a well-prepared presentation invites constructive and critical questions sometimes are worth of millions of dollars whereas a poorly prepared talk usually leads to futile arguments resulting a total waste of time.  In this respect, speakers do have some level of controls over the range of questions they receive.  I personally value people's criticisms and I welcome them with open mind and arms, thus, I have no inhibition to provide mine.  I consider I am providing a service to help others by being one of the tough audience.

My frankness at our weekly meetings had worked well for years and people within the group had been benefitted from it, okay, people have gotten used to it.

But a little more than two years ago, the big boss of the group passed away prematurely, which led to a drastic change in the dynamics of the original group: some of us PIs automatically gained seniority whereas others, particularly the trainees of the big boss, were facing uncertainties of their future, they either needed to claim their independence by quickly acquire research funds to become PIs or to move away to work for other PIs.  Also, the group somehow gets bigger and unfamiliar faces show up each time.  My continuing speaking critically with a bossy tone in this case would have been out of place and time.

Therefore, I had decided to change the style of my public speaking at that time.

You guessed it, that was impossible!  I cannot sugar coat what I have to say.  It conflicts with my personality and is against my teaching philosophy.

An alternative was to keep my mouth shut tightly.  But this is also a dilemma.  After all, it is my job to provide feedback to the speakers, I have to say something!  Plus, keeping my mouth shut kills my brain activity - remembers introverts, we extroverts usually require speaking to stimulate thinking.

What to do?  How to shut up or to speak without sugar-coating things?

After trying my best to keep myself invisible for a while, I'd developed a strategy: I simply just waited for a few seconds to dissipate the urge of my questioning and commenting "critically".  This small amount of waiting time usually allows others who are less critical to ask questions.  By the time I open my mouth, the speakers' have already been primed for tougher questions thus the likelihood of their taking my comments as an offense decreases.  I then could just safely sail with my critical but necessary critiques.

By playing with this wait game, I have gained quite a bit of control.  I've felt easier and easier as time goes.  I have started to enjoy the new me who is sitting quietly at the back row listening others.  Sometimes I even can laugh inside at those who act like the old me speaking authoritatively without inhibition.  Now more than two years have elapsed and I've begun to harvest the fruit of my efforts.  I've noticed that my change counteracts the negative energy around me.  It is worth of mentioning here that my "personality change" has certainly been noticed - people sometimes look for me at meetings and often amused when they find me sitting all the way back in the room.  More importantly, they sometimes even invite me to speak up!

Problems solved, right?

Not so easily, especially not today!  Today, however, I sort of let go of my self-control at our joint lab meeting.  And I am not proud of myself today.  Now I am sitting here wishing that I had not flushed my past few years of efforts down to the toilet!

It's definitely more important to know when to shut up than to know when to speak up.

Don't you agree?