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 (Pablo@um.es) 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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