Tacit golden rules for work
July 7, 2010 7:56 PM   Subscribe

I am having a little trouble at work...with all the unspoken rules and expectations. I don't have anyone to teach me these things nor do I have enough/any work experience to learn..and I'd like to learn these things fast!

Before I start, I am NOT talking about work ethics. The problem is I am very direct. Most relationships suck because people are too afraid to speak the truth because they don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. I think work should be a place where people should be direct but it seems like there is a whole different dynamics going on. I want to learn the dos and don't s at work and I'd like to hear all stories. A couple of examples (more topics/scenarios and comments are welcome)-

1. Working hours- there are people who stick around till the boss is around and they take such long lunch breaks that you'd think they forgot its a working day. What's the thing to do? I know this scenario won't be possible in a lot of fields but lets assume for clarity that you are a research associate in a lab.

2. Deadlines- the boss gives an unreasonable deadline...(apparently trying to test how you work under pressure!?) - do you agree and a) do as much as you can and then deal with it on the doomsday, b) you say that it wont be possible and ask for more time (does that make you look incompetent?).

3. The boss never openly provides constructive criticism but loves to talk behind everyone's back. How the heck do you figure out when he means what s/he says and when is s/he unhappy with you/your work?

How do you learn to read between the lines correctly when your personality is to say what you mean and nothing else?
I am not looking for statements like,"This is not normal" or "This is a toxic environment". I normally avoid the guess-culture people (still in the process of finding that mefi reply..) in personal life and that really keeps me sane but I'd say that at least 50% people at work also fall in this category. Help me learn to navigate with these personality types!

Any tips and comments from employers regarding what they love about their employees and things they never want to hear from the employees are also welcome. Also, please mention your area of work and what are the things an employee can do to become your favourite employee or something.
posted by xm to Work & Money (30 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Here is something I wish I had known early on: in just about every office job you have, should you work there long enough to have some kind of conflict, someone will give you what is not precisely the "Come to Jesus" speech, but a speech I like to call "This is the Way the World Works." It's not as heavy as the Come to Jesus speech, but it's definitely meant to redirect your current work to whatever the "appropriate" behavior is supposed to be. Generally, the speech-giver is an older man, but it can be an older woman as well. They'll have an air of having Been Around, either at that particular place a while or will have worked in the relevant industry for the whole career. The focus won't be on your particular organization, but rather on how the whole wide world works.

I want you to write down the high points of what is said to you. Keep them handy, refer to them in your job every so often. At your next job, when you get that speech, take notes on this version of it and compare against the speech from last go-round. They'll be nothing alike.

Whoever it is handing down the speech, they don't know about the world. They've just been in their job so long they can't imagine anything outside of it. This is not to say you shouldn't heed the warning while you're in Job A, but don't take it as some kind of grand life principle you must apply to Jobs B, C, D, and so forth, because they don't have it all figured out any more than you do.
posted by adipocere at 8:31 PM on July 7, 2010 [9 favorites]

Oh god no, do NOT be honest and forthright at a job. Hell to the no. Bad idea. Work is all about hedging about everything. Or preferably, keeping as quiet as possible.

#1: if you're working in a lab, from what I have seen/heard, research labs are a LOT more flexible about that sort of thing than pretty much every other job ever. Also, it's "what you can get away with." If the boss isn't riding those people's asses to be there at 8 every day and punch a time card, then...they get away with it.

#2: (c) all of the above: Point out in great detail why meeting that deadline might be a problem, and then when the boss insists on the unreasonable deadline anyway, agree and do as much as you can and then the chips fall where they may.

#3: uh... listen to the gossip mill, I hate to say. In general if a boss is unhappy with you they are far more likely to let you know about it than if they are happy. If this guy/girl bitches behind people's backs, it's just gonna be an uncomfortable situation no matter what anyway.

Read between the lines? Well... if they use "buzzwords", you can probably look up those phrases on the Internet for what they really mean. Otherwise you just have to observe behavior and learn the hard way.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:32 PM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, and the "this is the way the world works" speech? That's "the way the world works" at this particular job and in this office culture. That's why the speech is different.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:34 PM on July 7, 2010

Edgar Schein writes about some of these things in an intelligent way (Corporate Culture Survival Guide looks like it is a briefer, more readily digestible version of Organizational Culture & Leadership).
posted by milkrate at 8:35 PM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

A lot of these questions are things that you should be asking of your boss and/or work colleagues. I know that when you arrive in a new place it can be hard to know who to ask (and what is okay to ask), but if I were you I'd make identifying people who you can ask these things a #1 priority. Figure out who they are by asking small things that there should be no problem with (e.g., is it okay if I eat at my desk? etc) and then if they seem receptive to helping you, gradually build up to the more difficult / fraught questions. If you work on being friends with them, so much the better, because it is always easier to ask friends this kind of thing.

But since I know that's a long-term solution, not an immediate one, here are a few immediate thoughts that might be helpful. FYI, I supervise a lot of people in a lab (I'm in academia) so that's where I'm coming from, although I've also been on the other end too.

1. Working hours: in many jobs what is important isn't "face time" but whether you get things done. I know in my lab I don't personally care if they do all of their work from home, but I do care if they aren't doing their job. You need to ascertain which of these is the case. I don't really understand why you can't ask your colleagues this; there is a way to do so without appearing accusatory. For instance: "I would really like to work from home tomorrow. Do you think Boss would mind?" Ask several people independently if you don't know who to trust. Also, look at Boss's responses to the people who apparently skip out all the time.

2. Unreasonable deadline: Are you sure that Boss is trying to test how you work under pressure, or is this your assumption? Some bosses do this, sure, but if I set an unreasonable deadline it would probably be because I had an unrealistic grasp of the employee's skill set or the difficulty of the problem... or I thought they could do it and wanted to push them to achieve a bit more. Either way, the best thing to do is to give it your best shot, and then if you don't succeed, arrive on "doomsday" with a detailed explanation of what you did do, what you think still remains to be done, and how long you think that will take. If they are "testing" you, you'll pass (unless they are completely unreasonable), and if they simply miscalibrated all of this information will help them calibrate better, and impress on them that you are a responsible, intelligent, and resourceful person.

3. This is a hard one, because it is sounding more and more like your Boss leaves something to be desired. But there is some possibility that they act this way because they don't have better strategies or don't know what you need -- in which case you should tell them. I had a boss once who never told me what I did right, only what I did wrong, and I was getting more and more demotivated; I finally told him that I needed to hear both, and even gave him a little script ("First say one good thing, and then the bad thing, and then another good thing"). It helped a lot. So sit your boss down and tell them that if they have any constructive criticism you would really like to hear it, because you can't improve without it. Again, if your boss just sucks I'm not sure that will help, but they can't change if they don't know they need to. And if Boss never changes, then I would basically assume that they are happy with my work, and that no news is good news, while continually keeping my eyes open for any indication to the contrary. If there is no documented trail of them giving you specific criticisms and you not fixing the problems, I don't think they can fire you.

Bottom line -- I think you do just need to ask about these things. We who are not your boss and not in your particular work situation can't help you all that much. Most workplaces are way more ask-culture than guess-culture, so as long as you ease into it gradually and don't freak out if people do give you honest criticism, I would be surprised if this went over really badly.
posted by forza at 8:36 PM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I take it you're new at your job? If you are, you might want to, for the first little while, observe and not say too much. Yet this has to be balanced with participating in meetings, and asking questions when you need things or clarification. Also try to find an ally. Someone at the same level as you, or maybe a bit higher, whom you think you could get along with, whom you could trust, and whom you could share insights with on your office's dynamics.

You say you are direct, yet paradoxically, you're not direct in your question about the things you are typically direct about. Can you give us some specific examples/scenarios of how you are direct? (in work, in life, etc.) We could probably help you out with that. That said, to your e.g.s:

1. The thing to do in this situation is to ignore it. It's not your job to police the working hours of other people. Yes it's annoying when other people seem to be breaking the rules, but what are you going to do? Go to you boss and say, "Kate and Willy and Selma took a 4-hour lunch today and I think that's wrong. They should take the alloted 1/2 hour lunch just like the rest of us" and in response, maybe your boss might say, "Actually, they took their lunch then went to a 3 hour off-site meeting" -- I don't know.

2. Negotiate your deadlines. It's Thursday and the assignment is due on Monday. You have 5 other high-priority projects that are due next week. Just say, "Let me take a few minutes to review my workload and see if that deadline is doable." Come back with a list of all the things you have to do and you can say, "Well, in order to meet that deadline, I'm going to have to set aside this project for a while; the deadline on this other one has to be pushed back, unless this new assignment is so urgent that it must be in on Monday?" The key here is to communicate your needs, understand the parameters of the assignment, and work with your boss to complete it.

3. Directly ask for feedback. Go in with specific questions and show that you want to do a good job, but would like feedback in xyz areas. For e.g. you just completed an assignment. Ask the boss for a few minutes for feedback on it. You can say, "Just wanted to make sure that I met the expectations on this assignment. I wasn't sure I should do this, but did that work out in the end? etc." You're not going to know how to do everything. You learn how to do so by experience and by getting feedback. Ignore what the boss says about everyone else behind their back (which is the complete opposite of what jenfullmoon said, but she has a point - pay attention, but don't fuel the gossip mill).

Hope that helps!
posted by foxjacket at 8:37 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

0. How old are you and have you worked in a similar environment before?

1. Do what you were contractually hired to do. Are you salaried or hourly? Salary - it depends on the environment/boss, but results are worth more than "face time." As a research associate in a lab (science, right?), results matter. If your experiments/assays/making-tools works great on the first try - sure... goof off all you want. If they don't work, work out, get made, you've got to get that stuff done - salary/hourly doesn't matter. Produce.

2. Deadlines - it's ok to say "I cannot do that by myself in that timeframe." Also ok is, "That is not a reasonable timeframe - <reason 1>, <reason 2>, and it took <star of the lab> X amount of time to accomplish this.

Do this when you're asked to do it. If the deadline is up, be prepared to give an explanation (not an excuse) as to why it's going to take longer. If you're experienced, you can either tell the boss that the time allotted is not reasonable. Asking for more time before is better than asking for time after.

Sometimes deadlines are outside of your boss's control - ask if the boss could help with some of the (perhaps downstream) steps, especially if it's something big, with a big payoff.

Unsolicited advice - make sure your boss knows that you went the extra effort to make things happen. But only if you managed to make them happen.

3. Ignore. Ask boss directly - "Are you satisfied with my work/progress." "I did <x> on project <y>. Are you happy with what I contributed? What areas do you think I could improve on?

Sorry, but you either have a phenominally crappy boss, or you're an entry level hire with much higher expectations of contribution than "research associates" actually do. Associates can be important and integral parts of a research lab, and when one proves that they are, they're usually mentored to apply to graduate school with great labs or are mentored into being exceptional lab managers.

Sorry if I'm being harsh - if you're serious about making a career of being support in a (n academic) science lab, feel free to memail me. It *can* be fulfilling intellectually and economically.
posted by porpoise at 8:42 PM on July 7, 2010

The problem is I am very direct. Most relationships suck because people are too afraid to speak the truth because they don't want to hurt anyone's feelings.

The problem is not about directness, it is about inexperience. You are new to the game. How do you know what truths to be direct about?

I think work should be a place where people should be direct but it seems like there is a whole different dynamics going on. I want to learn the dos and don't s at work...

Work is a place where work gets done. Whether people are direct or not in the workplace will depend on many things, particularly the power structure and nature of the work.

Assuming you are asking this question so as to make a good impression at work rather than just latch on to the perks others seem to be giving themselves...

1. Working hours: on normal work-load days, arrive a little early and leave a little late and be punctual in returning from breaks. On extra work load days arrive earlier and leave when the task is finished or the boss/leader goes home. Again, be punctual about breaks. Take an extra break if necessary when appropriate (to work, not to you) during the overtime period if it is extended.

2. Deadlines: "I will try my best" is a good reply. Then damn hell try your best. Don't say 'can't be done'. Even if it actually and absolutely can't be done, say something like 'I would need to reschedule other priorities to meet this new deadline. Could you help me work out which ones to drop.'

3. If you think that your boss is giving you mixed messages about your work, ask for a few minutes and and for an update on your progress. "Hi Boss. As you know I am new to this lab/the workforce and I would like to get a quick update on how I am doing and areas I can improve."

Your job as a beginner in the workplace is to learn the rules and learn them well. Rules such as punctuality, politeness, positiveness and, of course, productivity. It's through being a master of these traits that you will become a valuable and respected employee. Then comes the perks....
posted by Kerasia at 8:46 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hmm, on reading other responses, I see some disagreement with the "be honest" advice. Obviously you should try to read the lay of the land and if it seems that honesty goes over really badly, then think twice about it.

BUT. I think that a lot of problems never get solved because it is often assumed in advance that the boss is incompetent or unreasonable, or the work culture is toxic, when it's a simple matter of people not knowing what you need or being someone untrained in the job they are trying to do. A lot of people in management / running labs / being supervisors never got trained to do so, so they've basically learned as they go, and probably do a number of things badly. I greatly, greatly appreciate the people who see my mistakes and give me the benefit of the doubt (that they were mistakes, that I'm not an evil person or a toxic boss) and communicate with me about them in a rational way, giving me guidance about how I can improve as a supervisor. They are way easier to manage -- and much more likely to become "favourites" -- than somebody who tries to guess what I want or hide from me or always tell me what they think I want to hear.
posted by forza at 8:46 PM on July 7, 2010

Most relationships suck because people are too afraid to speak the truth because they don't want to hurt anyone's feelings.

It sounds like you don't care about people's feelings enough. Pro-tip: people make a lot of decisions - in the workplace and out of it - based around their feelings. Remember it. Also, remember that if there's one thing people hate, it's others telling them that they're wrong - especially others who have just started.

General advice for those new to an organisation:

1. Shut up more than you think you should.

2. If your manager likes you, and thinks you do good work, it hardly matters what everyone else thinks. Your number one question with any task, workflow or interaction, should be "how will this make my manager happy?" That always be your first question, and you should always have an answer for it. Only after that can you start finessing things for the broader environment.

e.g manager has given me a deadline I can't meet, will it make them happier if I tell them it's fine, then miss the deadline, or will it make them happier to have some notice that the deadline is not going to be met, and an understanding of why I believe that to be the case, and how I may need extra support to meet the deadline?
posted by smoke at 9:11 PM on July 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

I am not new or a beginner (student, couple of years now) so the question has nothing to do with these superficial things.

foxjacket- how many subtleties are there to being a direct?

kerasia- I am really good at asking all the questions that you mentioned but the problem is I dont get any responses. Everything is fine when you ask- which leaves me clueless.

forza- if you are a PI, let's admit it- "flexible" and "your time" as long as you are productive doesnt really mean much. I mean everyone knows how happy and overjoyed PIs are when they see you past seven even when they say otherwise.

My question is not specifically about the current situation- I have figured out personality flaws in my boss but I would really like to know how to work around those flaws- not giving people direct/sincere feedback, saying one thing meaning another- how do you gauge that at work (not just with boss- anyone you have to work with) without wasting a ton of time gathering data about their personalities?

There is also this person in a different department though she is younger than I am. She adapted amazingly quickly to her boss's working hours, fixes all problems promptly (research doesnt work that way) and I want to be like that. It almost seems that she got some training in tacit rules at the workplace from some elderly father-figure or something. Of course I am looking at this as an outsider but I really want to navigate workplace issues like personalities and especially people being indirect more smoothly and quickly. Its like going out on a date and being blind to your date's lack of interest when their expressions are obvious- being direct in an indirect world seems like that- its almost like I am blind to some rules of engagement that these indirect folks live by that I cant grasp. I want to learn to switch that mode on within me when I have to deal with such a person so that I can maintain my sanity- its not about losing a job or something. And heck, I am not looking for perks. I want to go, do my job, be direct with direct people, be indirect and navigate with indirect people and come home with my sanity intact.

Does it make sense?
posted by xm at 9:26 PM on July 7, 2010

also, meeting a deadline is one thing, having to work your ass off during a long weekend and setting the deadline to an official holiday when you are out of town (and not telling the student) is the height of cheapness.
posted by xm at 9:32 PM on July 7, 2010

You should ask her for some advice! People are flattered and happy to give advice usually, she might have some great tips for you.
posted by smoke at 9:32 PM on July 7, 2010

She is a classic indirect person. Also, very cautious, opinion-less and agrees with whatever you have to say.
posted by xm at 9:41 PM on July 7, 2010

forza- if you are a PI, let's admit it- "flexible" and "your time" as long as you are productive doesnt really mean much. I mean everyone knows how happy and overjoyed PIs are when they see you past seven even when they say otherwise.

If your goal is to create good communication patterns, one thing you probably want to avoid is assuming that somebody doesn't "really" mean the things they say, like you just did here to me. As long as somebody is productive, I'm not overjoyed to see them working insane hours -- if they do that routinely, it's likely they'll burn out on me. Also, people with a life outside of work are often more creative and efficient while at work.
posted by forza at 9:50 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was writing about the general PI population I have come across. It's interesting, however, that you thought it was directed at you :)

I have to admit this- I did assume that a present-PI would also look at things as an ex-student.
posted by xm at 10:04 PM on July 7, 2010

How do you learn to read between the lines correctly when your personality is to say what you mean and nothing else?

These two things are not mutually exclusive. If the implied question was "I communicate this way, why doesn't everyone?" I can sort of see what you mean, if not agree 100%. But you can still be direct and forthright while paying attention to the world around you.

I'm kind of curious, personality-wise, if you also pride yourself so much on your directness that you push the issue and become confrontational, instead.

very cautious, opinion-less and agrees with whatever you have to say.

That statement is what gave me that impression. I've worked in the lab with many people like this, usually from other cultures, and every one of them opened up to me as soon as they realized I was honestly interested in their answers and I wasn't going to rat them out or view them as insubordinate. If this girl doesn't mind talking to you in general, dial back the "directness" when you chat with her about stuff that made acclimating to the lab easier for her. Because if you're asking her about, say, calendars and organization, there is literally nothing for her to agree with you on. It's only if you're expressing some sort of opinion already that someone might be railroaded into agreeing to make you go away or stop talking about a topic.

1. Some PIs do want you there all the damn time. I've worked for some like this, I've worked for some that would back forza's view. Honestly, the best thing to do is arrange your hours around the PIs expectations, where at all possible. They are not going to change and they definitely do not look at things like ex-students. (That literally sort of made me giggle to myself.) If you interact pleasantly with your PI at all, you could test this by asking something like "I'm looking at taking this class at the gym that starts at 6:30 pm. Would you mind if I adjusted my hours, or would you prefer me here when you are?" And see what response you get. If they say that's fine, pay attention to how they're acting rather than what they're saying, to make sure it's *really* fine. If it turns out it's definitely not fine, then you know that, too. Then you adjust your hours to be there when they are whenever possible, and if it means you're taking 3 hour lunches so you don't have excessive busywork overtime, so be it.

I don't know why you're paying attention to other people's long lunches in the lab at all, unless you end up picking up their slack somehow.

2. I would not assume they're testing you just because it's an awful deadline. If, however, you actually know this to be true, point out how many other things you're working on and if they don't budge, get to it. If it gets to be the day or week before that deadline and you're not done, explain what you have done toward it and how you don't believe you'll be finished. I used to be of the camp that laid out exactly when I thought a more reasonable due date would be, but my bosses in academia really did see that as trying to get out of work and slacking so now I'm very careful about it.

3. If your boss is actually telling you that they are unhappy with your work, ask right then what you need to fix or change. If they're apparently telling everyone else, stop in to see them some time and say something like you want to make sure you're living up to the expectations in the lab and would like to know areas you could improve. You can't really affect what your boss talks about behind your back or force them to give constructive criticism, all you can do is deal with how it affects you. If there is literally no feedback at all, I would assume I was doing adequately until told otherwise.

I used to work for a lab identical to this, hence my strong opinions on how to deal with it. The other students I knew that dealt with it well were the "keep your head down" types who never questioned anything aloud. The students who got kicked out of the lab (and there were many) were those that appeared to be "whining" or "complaining" or "not fitting into the environment."

tl;dr version: General rule of thumb for all workplaces - observing is more important than being direct. Always. Even if asked for your direct opinion, give it as charitably as you can. Never look like you're trying to rat out your coworkers. Asking questions works best if you're not trying to push an agenda and you pay attention to how the answer's given and not just what is said.
posted by wending my way at 11:10 PM on July 7, 2010

All jobs are different, and all unspoken rules are different, because all people are different. So:

1. Working hours- there are people who stick around till the boss is around and they take such long lunch breaks that you'd think they forgot its a working day. What's the thing to do? I know this scenario won't be possible in a lot of fields but lets assume for clarity that you are a research associate in a lab.

As a general rule, do what your boss tells you. If your boss does not tell you, do what the people your boss likes the most do, but only if you can do it with them. If neither of these things are obvious and realistic, work your standard required hours, come in fifteen minutes early, leave fifteen minutes late, and take your hour for lunch at the same time every day -- and when you need or expect to deviate, let your boss know in advance and let him or her advise you in how much flexibility you have.

2. Deadlines- the boss gives an unreasonable deadline...(apparently trying to test how you work under pressure!?) - do you agree and a) do as much as you can and then deal with it on the doomsday, b) you say that it wont be possible and ask for more time (does that make you look incompetent?).

It depends entirely on your level of competence, the amount of trust your boss has in you, and what you have to lose. Me, I usually let my boss know I will assess the requirements and let him or her know if I can meet the deadline by end of day, then I do, and if I can't, I can quantify why (whether it's a known blocker, a lack of information that needs to be compensated for to minimize risk, or simply too much work for too little time available.)

My bosses haven't always liked it at first, but I never miss a deadline because of it -- and I've found that bosses like having deadlines they can count on a lot more than they like believing everything will be fine until the last day when it isn't, or telling their boss they can't make the deadline and, when pressured for details, finding out I haven't given them the info to defend the requested deadline extension. Eventually I become a trusted and vital member of the team, and beyond. However, I never worry about getting fired (and haven't been), so in my mind I have nothing to lose, so I can be confident and accurate (including admitting my mistakes) without fear. YMMV.

3. The boss never openly provides constructive criticism but loves to talk behind everyone's back. How the heck do you figure out when he means what s/he says and when is s/he unhappy with you/your work?

You ignore all the back-talk. You reach out after a reasonable amount of time and say "[boss], I'd like to sit down with you and find out how well I'm meeting or not meeting your expectations, and set some goals for the coming [some period of time]; do you have time for a one-on-one [at some point in the near future?]"

At that point, either your boss sits you down and gives you real, honest feedback -- or you accept that you're not going to get good, honest feedback, and you do your best, get experience, and use it to find a job with a better boss.
posted by davejay at 11:39 PM on July 7, 2010

Oh, and I'm super-blunt. When I worked at my last job, that was a huge asset. At my current job, it is -- but only one-on-one, not in meetings like at the last gig. It was an adjustment for me, but learning how to be tactful yet still honest and direct is a job skill, just like any other. Start learning.
posted by davejay at 11:40 PM on July 7, 2010

the boss gives an unreasonable deadline...(apparently trying to test how you work under pressure!?)

Did I mention that bosses don't do this to see how you work under pressure? They do this because they want you to get it done in that time, and they assume that if it isn't enough time, you'll say something. Too many employees respond to this as some kind of personal challenge. I cannot tell you the number of times I've watched people take deadlines I've rejected and said "I'll do it, I can get it done!" and are all smiles until the last day, then drop the ball -- and that person gets fired or shuffled off to the side, or at least chewed out, and the boss gets his ass handed to him on a plate for not managing his or her underlings properly.
posted by davejay at 11:43 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ack, bad writing. Let me clarify:

"I will assess the requirements and let him or her know by the end of the day if I can meet the deadline by end of day, then I do tell them whether or not I can meet the deadline by the end of the day, and if I can't meet the deadline, I can quantify why..."

Incidentally, you sure seem to need a lot of specific guidance. You might benefit from relaxing a little, and assuming that "you're doing fine" means "you're doing fine, I have nothing specific to praise you for, nor anything specific to give you a hard time about, so just stay the course." Take a deep breath, concentrate on getting your specific tasks accomplished, and when you're done say "is there anything else I can do?" until you've been around long enough to start picking up the nuances of your environment.
posted by davejay at 11:51 PM on July 7, 2010

I f'd that up again. Ack. Too late at night. Suffice to say, I tell them within 24 hours if I can meet the deadline, and why or why not.
posted by davejay at 11:52 PM on July 7, 2010

2. Keep your tasks updated and prioritized. Then, when your boss asks for something ASAP or something else equally poisonous, you can point to what else you're working on and tell them that x, y, and z are going to be pushed back.
posted by rhizome at 12:17 AM on July 8, 2010

Okay, here are my answers- based upon personal experience from several years of working in a lab.

1. Working hours. If you're a technician/research associate (as opposed to grad student/post-doc) I'd recommend being there 9 to 5, with 45 min or so for lunch, unless you and your supervisor have specifically discussed and agreed upon a different arrangement. Don't compare yourself to the others in the lab- they may be working weird hours, but maybe they also come in on nights and weekends. The weird hour thing is pretty typical in a lab, and not worth making a fuss about.

2. Deadlines. Talk to your boss- asking him/her to prioritize is key. "I'll do my best to get it all done in that time frame, but which of these areas would you like to me to focus on?" Don't ask for more time, ask for help, either in prioritizing or with some of the bench work. Grad students/post-docs are expected to work crazy hours because it's "their" research and they will ideally gain a publication out of it. You shouldn't be expected to do the same, unless you'll be gaining something out of it, be that authorship/overtime pay/ or a gleaming med school recommendation.

3. Unfortunately, many brilliant scientists are crappy managers. One thing that might help is to schedule a brief weekly/bi-monthly meeting with your boss to make sure you always have an open line of communication. Tell him/her what you've been working on and discuss data, experiments, etc. Ask for feedback and ask what you can do to improve your work. Be direct, ask direct questions, and your boss will have to give you direct answers.

Lastly, some PIs are just complete jerks, and there's not much you can do about it. I would be hesitant to continue working for a notorious back-talker. My ex-boss was like this and it hindered my career and really damaged my self- esteem. Now I work for a talented, straightforward, and helpful scientist and it is wonderful.
posted by emd3737 at 12:35 AM on July 8, 2010

These two desires:

"how do you gauge that at work (not just with boss- anyone you have to work with) without wasting a ton of time gathering data about their personalities?"

"She adapted amazingly quickly to her boss's working hours, fixes all problems promptly (research doesnt work that way) and I want to be like that."

are mutually exclusive. Either you treat people like people and get good at navigating issues of personality, or you treat people like bad misbehaving widgets that irritate you with their quirks and you don't.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:13 AM on July 8, 2010

Thanks all for your answers.

1-3 were examples and I regret that I let the answers focus on these so much, esp labs and PIs. .

I am looking for general insights. Were there incidents from your work experience where you exercised tact beautifully to manage people and situations around you when spoken words wouldn't have done the job? I want to know more about it. I think reading about your experiences is really going to help rather than focus on what everyone thinks about 1-3.
posted by xm at 6:24 AM on July 8, 2010

Things I did wrong in lab:
Comparing my hours to those of others. You're presumably doing different projects with different deadlines. There are also different expectations of different people in lab. Those guys who took a three hour lunch break - maybe there was a three hour incubation, or maybe they spent some of those three hours working on editing a paper or grant proposal. Maybe the boss has given up on them actually producing any real data and doesn't care if they are out of lab for most of the day.

When I've joined labs in the past, I've asked what the expected hours are. My graduate school lab expected 10-12 hour days six days a week. Those who didn't work those hours were asked to leave. It didn't matter when you got in or when you left unless you were new and needed supervision, then you were expected to work similar hours to the people training you. Is there someone who gets in super early in the morning? Ask them to start something for you so you can leave earlier. Ask them if they'd like you to finish something up so they don't have to stay for 12 hours. Are you going to be in on Sunday? Offer to start a culture for someone so they can do things to it on Monday. Make things collaborative, make them your friends. Then they'll be more likely to let you know what the boss is saying about you and help you to fix what ever is wrong. It takes time to integrate into a new workplace.

In a new lab, I will ask how I'm doing at the end of the week for the first month or two. Similarly, if I'm training someone, I'll let them know how they're doing on a similar time scale.

Some people praise good work, and some people tend to only let you know when you've screwed up. I've found this difficult sometimes, especially when I've done something really challenging or met a nigh impossible deadline.

When you establish a deadline, write an outline/list of the experiments involved and how much time they take. Make the amount of time involved part of the discussion. A former PI used to ask me if I'd finished doing an expression, running a gel and doing a western blot every couple of hours. I finally just wrote down how long each step was taking, told him when to expect results and not to bug me until it could be reasonably done. He didn't understand that bothering me while I was trying to work would delay the data.

Know why you're working to a deadline - is there a grant deadline, a figure for a publication, a talk your PI is going to give, etc. Sometimes just knowing what is at stake makes it easier.

Also, this might be viewed as kissing up, but bring in a plate of brownies; people like food. You can claim they were leftovers from a BBQ or something if you want to make it seem less kissy.
posted by sciencegeek at 6:36 AM on July 8, 2010

The biggest piece of advice I have pertains to this statement:

Most relationships suck because people are too afraid to speak the truth because they don't want to hurt anyone's feelings.

This rings giant warning bells in my head. Being considerate of people's feelings isn't a bad thing. We shouldn't lose all manners and tact just because we step into the office or lab. I understand where you are coming from, and as a scientist I have worked very closely with some very direct people.

A lot of directness and indirectness is tied into humility and uncertainty - you may think you're just being direct, but being direct can often come across as being arrogant or brash. For example, instead of saying "You did this wrong", genuinely asking "Why did you do it like this?" is much more pleasant. In the first, you assume you know right, in the second, you allow for uncertainty. In both encounters, the person has to explain their reasoning. In the first way, they feel attacked, but in the second, they might feel slightly flattered that they can explain something to you that you may not know. Both methods achieve the same result, but when dealing with indirect people, the former makes you look like an asshole and the latter, helpful.

So if you are using this as a basis for how you deal with people, then you will definitely have problems, especially if the general atmosphere in your research group is one of indirectness.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 7:40 AM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

For me at a job (research assistant at one point), I observe how the lab works and I have a very good idea of what I like in a job. For example, I am not a morning person so I asked my boss before I started my first day, whether I could work 10-6 instead of 9-5. I figured it was the same amount of hours and the work wasn't so time sensitive that I had to be in at 9. I also know that I work better if I have weekly meetings which gives me a goal to work towards. So I ask for that too.

I also asked the other people in the lab how my boss was as a boss - gossip, if you will. Was he always around? Was he always out of town at meetings? How much did he like to know about each individual project? How often did he like to meet to discuss progress? Are there lab meetings? Does he (in this case) have a family? This question I'm actually finding very interesting as I move around positions. I find that whether or not a professor has a family and how he/she treats them will suggest how he/she expects you to act. My current prof will leave early for his daughter's soccer game, but he'll come in on the weekend to catch up (translation - the hours aren't as important as getting the stuff done on time).

I think that I'm very direct when I need to be but I know that the best way to learn is often to observe so that you know what questions to ask. Plus a lot of people do not consciously think about how they work with others. The woman that you admire may not have any really good idea of how she adapts to her new supervisor and so she may not be able to tell you. Or their personalities may mesh in a way that you and your boss won't be able to do.

As a final example, spoken words did not work when I wanted the garbage can moved. The can was in the far corner of the lab and (literally) next to another can so I moved one under my bench. My coworker got very mad. I explained why I'd like to have it there (I was producing a lot of garbage and it was nice to just drop it off the bench) but she started yelling at me. I have no idea what I did wrong in that situation. I ended up going to my boss and getting his explicit permission to place the can where I wanted but I ruined my relationship with this coworker. There was probably cultural issues at work but I'm still annoyed that I couldn't have figured out a better, not direct, way to address the issue.
posted by hydrobatidae at 11:02 AM on July 8, 2010

You might find some useful guidance in material written to help people with Aspergers cope with working with other people. Such material really spells out the stuff you want to know, in detail.
posted by Idcoytco at 2:50 PM on July 8, 2010

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