Prevention of Power Abuse: More questions answered

Our Webinar on Power Abuse that took place in early June generated a lot of interest and its reception and attendance highlight the relevance of the topic for doctoral researchers. Many of the participants had questions for the speakers and, due to time constraints, not all of them could be answered during the Zoom session. Anne-Kathrin Stroppe from our Working Group ‘Prevention of Power Abuse’ compiled the remaining questions and we are very lucky that Prof. Thomas Rigotti from the Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research, together with his team members Miriam Arnold and Miriam Schilbach, took the time to write out the following responses.

Communication about (Bad) Leadership with Supervisors

What is your advice to junior researchers who want to address issues like shortcomings in their leadership, working conditions and the need to change supervision? How should they start this conversation?

First of all, do not wait until the situation gets unbearable, rather try to establish a regular communication with your supervisor. It is easier to address concrete situations where you felt treated against your needs and expectations, than to question the whole social interaction. I also advice to change perspectives, and ask yourself why the leader is acting in that way, and how would you have dealt with these situations? Whenever possible start with a positive note, address the behavior in concrete situations, and not the person(ality) as such, and provide concrete ideas how things would be better for you. Relationships are based on mutual social exchange – think also about your part in the relationship. What can you change in your behavior?

Are there any resources for junior researchers to improve and get more comfortable with their communication skills regarding matters of conflict?

Before addressing a conflict, structure your thoughts. Think about what your goal is and how you may achieve it. Properly preparing for a potentially conflictual interaction likely enhances self-assurance within the situation. By preparing a minimal goal as well as an optimal goal for a conversation, you create a corridor in which you can navigate according to the arguments of your counterpart. If you wish to rehearse a conflictual situation, you could do so with a partner or friend. Again, this may support self-assurance when facing actual conflict. Try to see both sides of the medallion – put yourself in the position of the other party. Possibly, you find that you comprehend the standing point of your supervisor. This may make it easier to find a common ground.  Finally you can look out for communication courses to improve your skill and exchange your experience with peers.

Leadership Training in Academia:

Does leadership training really change the behavior of superiors and if yes, can you recommend specific workshops?

There is solid evidence, that leadership training can make a difference. Critically reflecting one’s leadership and associated to that communication behavior coupled with information on how to lead in a way that benefits both, leaders and followers is key to changing behaviors. Workshops focusing on behavior rather than personality can be recommended. It is hard to give advice on any specific workshop, technique or concepts, as this all also has to be fitted with the organizational culture.

How are the topics of management and leadership addressed in the promotion of researchers in leadership positions? Would it help to make these hard selection criteria?

If leadership is taken into account in staffing decision on science positions it is usually only evaluated related to outcomes, but not the process. Past performance concerning publications, and the acquisition of research grants are the most important aspects. But, scientific communities in a certain field are quite small, and candidates with a known history of interpersonal problems might face problems. When promoting researchers in leadership positions, leadership skills should certainly be considered more. However, there is no “born leader”. Leadership can be learned and trained. Thus, when hiring someone, leadership skills need to be assessed as a developmental criteria.

When I ask for advice from my team leader, most of the time she makes me feel like I need to find out everything on my own because that is what doctoral researchers are supposed to do. Of course you have to think for yourself but how do I cope with that if I still need some more leadership from her?

This sounds like you both have different expectations regarding how much (instrumental) support should be provided. Not only leaders and supervisors are different, but also   – how much structure and guidance they prefer. Addressing this topic in a conversation between the two of you can help to make mutual expectations and obligations explicit. This can give you some guidance, when it is appropriate to ask the team leader for help or when you should find a solution or make a decision on your own. If the leader is not available, you may also reach out for peer support.

Communication with supervisors especially under conditions of strong hierarchies and power inequalities is a very sensitive matter. PhD candidates are rarely good prepared to handle such communication settings well. How do you think this situation can be improved?

When beginning a work relationship, one should talk about expectations from supervisors and PhD candidates. Finding a common ground for working together at the beginning may provide a certain set of conditions that PhD candidates may refer to if problems or conflicts arise in the future.

Power Abuse and Types of Power Abuse

Why is power abuse so intrinsically accepted in science/academia?

I would not say that it is generally accepted – but still we do see to much of it. Power abuse is not only a matter of toxic personalities, but also about culture, and structures in the German academic system. To a certain extent it might also be learned behavior, as leaders themselves had role models during their career, and they think that is the way how to be successful. It is important to establish an organizational culture that does not tolerate power abuse. The works council, and the Ombudsperson are two potential sources to consult if lines have been crossed.

Are there any systemic changes that could help diminish the power dynamics that make doctoral researchers vulnerable? In Germany, your PhD supervisor is often also your day-to-day boss and final examinator. Could a clear separation between these duties help?

This constellation (boss and evaluator) is actually not specific to the academic world. Leaders in other organizations are usually also responsible for the day-to-day-business, as well as the long-term performance appraisal, and career guidance. In some PhD examinations, indeed, the direct supervisor does not serve as a reviewer. I am quite sure, that this does not resolve the potential problem of power abuse, as the dependency is not only based on the grading. The doctoral thesis is usually at least rated by two, sometimes three reviewers. Establishing contact to these reviewers before handing in the thesis, can help to counterbalance biased opinions from your supervisor.

In which relationships can power abuse occur and where can I get support?

Power abuse can occur in any relationship that is based on a certain degree of dependency. The first step would always be the direct interaction with the supervisor by openly addressing problems and conflicts. However, if this should not be possible, there may be a trusted third party in your research institution (e.g. in HR or the workers’ council, or the Ombudsperson), that may provide support in addressing the problem.

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