Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Better together?

Posted by Jean Adams

As I think I might have pointed out before, I am a fairly (very) introverted person. Mingling and networking and parties are not my default setting at all. In fact, it is possible that these are the things most likely to trigger all sorts of odd avoidant behaviour in me.

My introversion, and the general advice to focus on small grants at the start of one’s career, means that I have mostly been involved in projects with a few close collaborators that I know how to work with and who I know I work well with. But it seems that you can’t hide under your desk your whole life and I now find myself taking part in quite a few big projects, involving collaborations across and beyond Fuse.

Surprisingly, these collaborations don’t fill me with too much horror. It turns out that I’m fine with the sort of structured interaction you get at project meetings. But as I get involved with more and more big collaborations, it’s interesting to observe how they all work differently – and inevitably some work better than others.

Learning to work with people you haven’t worked with before sometimes feels like an odd little dance. You understand where you need to get to. But you’re not absolutely sure you’re managing to convey that to everyone else. The ways of working that seem natural to you, turn out to be a little too anal, or a little too flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, to everyone else.

To make a tricky situation just a little bit more awkward, there is the added complication of the teleconference.

Part of my introversion is a strong dislike of the telephone. I resisted a mobile phone for quite a lot longer than was absolutely sensible (“I don’t want people to be able to contact me anywhere”); and the task that I always put off longer than anything else is cold calling people – even when it’s become patently clear to everyone that a telephone call is the only way to achieve what I need to do (“what if they don’t want to be interrupted?”).

I’m not totally against teleconferences. In fact, I’d much rather a teleconference than an hour on the road, or three hours on the train, there and back. And teleconferences, like project meetings, tend to be a bit more structured than the cold calling that I struggle with. But still they can be odd, can’t they? Especially when you haven’t ever met the people you’re collaborating with IRL. In fact, despite the wonders of speaking live to countless people who are widely geographically dispersed, I am not absolutely sure that the teleconference is a phenomenon that we should definitely encourage.

Like many (most? all?) researchers I suffer from persistent insecurity about my intellectual abilities. But there’s nothing like a teleconference to bring out my imposter syndrome. And at the same time as worrying that I’m coming across as a numpty, I often find myself wondering if perhaps the people on the other end of the line are numpties themselves. Sure I might be talking nonsense, but I’m starting to get the feeling that you might be too. Or maybe only someone as daft as me would reckon that what you’re saying is daft? Look, let’s make a pact – I wont think you’re a numpty, if you don’t think I am; the problem here is the telephone, not anyone’s numpti-ness.

Happily there are a number of upsides to all of this. When things go well I get to meet interesting people, and take part in interesting conversations, and be involved in good research. And sometimes I even think I might be starting to get some control over my introversion.

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