Building a Good Team: The Rule of 8 Percent

15. May 2013

Pablo Artal

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to adapt and republish content from his popular blog Optics Confidential. In his blog, Artal fields questions from students, colleagues and other researchers on science, society and managing a career in optics.

Dear Pablo: I am a young faculty member in a physics department working to establish myself, and I need the help of good students and post-docs to move forward. I was surprised to find that dealing with the personal issues within my group is even more difficult than obtaining funding. Do you have any advice on how to form a good team? Andreas, U.S.A.

Building and managing a good team is a challenge in all fields, particularly during the early stages of your career. Many scientists struggle with this, and there is no simple trick that can guarantee your success. However, I can offer some advice to help you along the way.

In an ideal world, all of the people on your team would work together productively and without conflict. However, in practice, that likely won’t be the case. My experience and that of many of my colleagues leads me to believe in the “rule of 8 percent” -- the idea that, in most group settings, roughly 8 percent of the people will be problematic to work with.

You will invest a lot of time and energy in your group members: training and teaching them, introducing them to other colleagues, promoting them, etc. This is normal and appropriate; it only becomes a problem when you receive little in return for your efforts. When you reach the point where you feel that your time is being wasted, it is time to address the issue. Sometimes, regardless of what you do, you will not be able to turn people into good colleagues.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to identify the “8 percent” individuals at the outset, since it takes time to get to know people and their work habits. If possible, you should start new employees with a short training period as a trial before offering a longer-term position. However, this is not always an option due to the policies of academic institutions.

So, if someone in your group is making your life miserable, try to stay calm. First, have a conversation with him or her about the problems you are having. Sometimes it is possible to resolve even serious conflicts through open, honest communication. If this doesn’t work , you may want to suggest that the person leave your group. If you can think of another position for which he or she would be a better fit, try to help him or her make a smooth transition. If this is not possible, do your best to remove the person from your important projects and be sure that any sensitive information is difficult to access. Talk to university officials for help and stay firm. If you do nothing and allow the situation to get out of control, it could demoralize your strong contributors and hurt the group as a whole. The sooner you act, the better off you will be.

Although group problems can seem overwhelming, the good news is that the majority of your team should be much easier to work with. Focus on identifying everyone’s strengths and how they can complement one another. Finding what your students love to do and delegating their activities accordingly is a crucial part of your job as team leader. Although I have certainly worked with some difficult people over the course of my career, they are not the ones who stick out in my mind. More important are the other 92 percent of my students and colleagues who have been a joy to work with.

Pablo Artal ( is an OSA Fellow and professor of optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. He is an optical and vision scientist with an interest in visual optics, optical instrumentation, adaptive optics, and biomedical optics and photonics.

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How to Manage a Research Group

29. June 2012

Jean-luc Doumont

Managing a research group is tricky. Ph.D. programs selectively breed individuals who like nothing better than to do things their own way. How do you manage a group of those—especially when you are one of them yourself?

To make matters worse, group leaders in academia are usually selected for their research achievements, not their leadership abilities. They may not have any natural talent and are unlikely to have been trained for the job. As a result, bad practices propagate by replication, just like viruses. To follow is some advice for getting it right.

Assess yourself. The first step toward self-improvement is probably self-assessment. If you have been leading a group for awhile, systematically question what you are doing and how you are doing it. When in doubt, get feedback from your group members. And if you are just facing the prospect of becoming a group leader, think about how your group leaders have managed you. What did they do that you found useful? What do you wish they would have done differently? Why?

Focus on purposes and strategies, not procedures. Make a list of all you would like to accomplish as a leader of a research group, such as to secure funding, to buy equipment, to attract great people, and to obtain visibility through publications. As always with this kind of exercise, cluster and prioritize the purposes you have thus identified. Then think of the most effective ways to reach your purposes with the means at your disposal.
Strike a balance between maximizing the group’s scientific production, in quantity or quality, and fostering the individual development of group members. If you are too keen on getting a paper accepted, for example, you might be tempted to rewrite large parts of a student’s imperfect manuscript. Unfortunately, this student is unlikely to learn much from having his or her work redrafted. Students will learn more if you can identify what is suboptimal in the manuscript and explain why; then let them attempt the rewriting themselves.

Striking a balance applies to decision-making, too. If your leadership style is participative, you probably work hard to reach a consensus on decisions, but you may have experienced the process as slow and the decisions as unsatisfactory. In contrast, if you are more of an authoritarian, you likely prefer to decide everything yourself; however, your group members may resent never being involved. A compromise may be to encourage everyone’s input in a group discussion and then decide yourself on the basis of this discussion. Whatever you do, make sure that the rules of the game are clear: Lack of clarity is even worse than unpopular (but clear) rules.

Nurture your group. Managing a group of young researchers is not unlike parenting—another job for which very few of us have been prepared. At times, you may have little availability, leaving your children to figure things out on their own. In contrast, when you want something done fast and well, you may prefer to do it yourself.  You are busy enough as it is and don’t need another mess.

Still, to learn and grow, your children need opportunities. They need guidance and supervision—not too much (leave place for discovery and initiative) and not too little (make sure they learn efficiently and safely). You may well know better what is good for them, but you might still listen to them before deciding. Similarly, you may insist that they obey the rules, yet allow them to challenge them.

Like parents with their children, group leaders should help young researchers along on the path to independence. If you are managing a group, are you doing everything you can so your members can soon become leaders of their own?

Jean-luc Doumont ( holds a Ph.D. in applied physics from Stanford University. He now devotes his time and energy to training researchers and others in effective communication. He is a traveling lecturer for OSA.

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