It’s a common phrase used to describe conflict – they mix like oil and water. Or, as a scientist might say, they mix like nonpolar and polar molecules.
Managing people is difficult in any industry, but those managing in the science and technology sectors face unique obstacles. These professionals are typically very gifted, but their jobs focus heavily on logical thinking, and not traditionally on people skills.
“The reason a lot of people go into engineering is because they like things, not people,” said Michael Berman, manager of the Micro/Nano Fabrication Center at the University of Arizona College of Engineering, who has been managing engineering professionals for 25 years. “The fundamental barrier to overcome when managing (scientists) is that you have to teach them to treat people as people, instead of treating people like things.”
While it was once OK to be categorized as left brain or right brain, science and technology industries are now demanding the whole cranium.
To meet this demand, many universities around the country are offering specialized degrees that focus on both science and business.
“Organizations are looking for people who are more than just tech-savvy,” said Alaina Levine, director of special projects at the University of Arizona College of Science. “They want people with leadership skills, who can function effectively in a team and ultimately bring their team to triumph.”
Levine, an Edge 40 Under 40 winner who administers the Professional Master’s Degree Program in Applied Science and Business, a program that combines science and business-based studies into one degree, said that most employers find science-trained professionals an asset in any industry.
“Analytical and problem-solving are skills that these people have naturally,” she said. “And those are skills desirable no matter what the field.”
So how do you teach a scientist to be a good manager?
“Patience,” said Berman. “A lot of young engineers think they are the perfect person in an imperfect world. It takes time to convince engineers that other ideas are just as good, if not better, and they will learn more if they listen.”
According to Berman the key is to explain the whole picture.
It is essential to convey, for example, why it is necessary to be able to communicate results, and convince grants panels that a project is important – it gives the project money to continue the research.
Another barrier commonly faced in science and technology professions is learning to work cross-culturally.
Rob Ashley, CEO of AmpliMed Corp., a Tucson-based cancer research company, said that he has seen a number of conflicts in the business stem from cultural misunderstandings.
“It is very common for scientists to come from outside the U.S., and then you are dealing with language barriers, different social styles and different backgrounds,” he said.
Being aware that these problems exist and approaching differences with an open mind is a key step to overcoming cultural barriers.
“Communication goes in both directions,” Ashley said. “People have to know how to communicate upwards, to those in positions above them, and to also communicate downwards.”