The People Factor: Embracing different work personalities in the lab

Photo by RhondaK Native Florida Folk Artist on Unsplash

Often as PhDs, we often think the greatest challenge lies in the research project itself. This is common as to get into a PhD program, one has to jump through hoops of application screen to finally be “the one”.

I find that the most challenging aspect of being a PhD research candidate is not just the research work itself, but also the people who you work with. These people, regardless if you are collaborating with them throughout your candidature, is substantial in making or breaking your PhD, much more than the research question itself.

Throughout my PhD, I get asked this question a lot ” Do your prefer to work with someone who is extremely good at what they are doing, or someone who is responsible, supportive and helpful?”. At the early stage of my candidature, I would certainly prefer the first, as I have dreams of publishing well throughout my PhD. But after being on this track for a while, I certainly prefer the later.

Smart or good work ethics?

PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. Working with people who are extremely good at what they do does certainly help bring your work to a whole new level, in terms of quality, work progress and learning speed. However, that is only beneficial for a short term if the same person does not have good work ethics. Who enjoys collaborating with a horrible person anyway?

Although with that said, no work place is perfect. Like all other careers, we meet people of all different personalities, some more eccentric than others. If you somehow met a colleague with extremely good working ethics yet smart, lucky you! But most of us do not, not because it is all others to blame but having the best of both worlds is just so rare to come by. Sometimes it just has to do with how our own personality is compatible to the rest of the team in the lab. Yes, that is part of self-awareness as well.

My MPhil to PhD journey is where I started learning about myself, as well as others a little bit more. I take people’s remarks about me seriously and critically. After a conversation with one of my PhD best mate who just started her career as a professional data analyst, our conversation led me to the exploration of personality chemistry at a workplace.

The Personality Test

I evaluated my personality using the 16 personality test , and my test results suggested that I am the Campaigner (ENTP-T). This falls under the Diplomat personality where I care a lot about people around me as well as my own.

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This result is not absolute, but definitely a helpful reference of understanding my own personality. Reading more about other different personality types aided me in understanding why I worked well with some people, but find some extremely difficult to work with. I find understanding traits of various different personalities and identifying them at workplace ie. my lab helps me with coping my already challenging research work. I am in progress in learning to navigate clashing personality traits co-workers to work much more in harmony with your personality. This is of course, easier said than done. Despite challenging, I believe understanding your co-workers personality is helpful to bring the best out of your current workplace, no matter what the team condition is. This significantly helps with ones mental wellbeing and work productivity, which I believe is the true gist of teamwork.

Having to said that, what about extremely undesirable work traits, such as poor work integrity, selfishness at work, and taking other’s kindness for granted?

Flagging Stressful Work Issues is Important

At the beginning of my PhD, even if I have identified colleagues as above, I would choose to just keep it to myself, and work harder so that I would achieve my milestones and goals I have set for myself during my PhD (Yes, that is another trait of the Campaigner’s personality). However, when others stressful work personalities impacts my work progress that i have set to achieve, I get annoyed and frustrated. I noticed the “back-off and be nice” approach does not always work, as some people misread it as that means the attitude is acceptable, even when it is totally not.

Later stage of my PhD, I decided that my current approach is not working and I needed and alternative solution in dealing with difficult traits at work. I have learnt not be over responsible with others work behaviors, and whenever I noticed that my work progress is significantly delayed by others behaviour, I would speak to my principle investigator about it. This is not a sign of talking bad about others in my opinion, but a fundamental step to ensure the conducive environment for efficient workplace is met. This is important to ensure ultimate mental wellbeing at work and also higher productivity, rather than spending longer hours at work than required but the output does not match up to the hours invested. The weight of ensuring a optimal work environment should not be the responsibility of the lab head itself, but a team effort and open communication on how can be best work together with all our needs to work heard and actioned.

“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
― Carl Gustav Jung, Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst

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