A Tool for Feedback: Situation – Behavior – Impact (SBI)

July 16, 2018

In last week’s blog, we discussed difficult conversations at work. Today, we are going to focus on a tool which helps give you a framework for starting that convo and offering feedback. Created by the Center for Creative Leadership, the SBI Feedback Tool offers a simple structure that you can utilize straightaway.

  1. Situation
    Puts the feedback in context by attaching it to a time, place, or specific circumstance

    For example: “During yesterday’s lab meeting, when you asked me for an update on my project…”

  2. Behavior
    Describe what you observed and clearly state the observable action

    For example: “During yesterday’s lab meeting, when you asked me for an update on my project, you interrupted and contradicted me three times…”

  3. Impact
    Outlines the feeling and thoughts which happened as a result

    For example: “During yesterday’s lab meeting, when you asked me for an update on my project, you interrupted and contradicted me three times. I felt I wasn’t given a chance to properly give an overview of my work and I was embarrassed in front of my lab-mates.”

Once you have given your feedback, be sure to allow the person time to comprehend what you have said. It is important to give the individual a chance to respond and you should check in with them by asking “How do you feel about this feedback? Is there anything you don’t agree with or that I missed?” Be sure to then offer specific suggestions that would help avoid conflict in future scenarios. For example: “Can we meet one-on-one to discuss your concerns with my work? Then, can we find time next week for me to present all of my data to the rest of the lab?” It is not enough to go into a conversation to just complain about what happened. Try to move the conversation into a more action-oriented and solution-focused approach.

The final step in this feedback scaffold is to summarize and express support. An example of how this might look with this particular scenario is: “I appreciate your willingness to review my project on Monday and it sounds like we are going to try again at next Thursday’s lab meeting.”

Conflict can be especially taxing when it is with your boss. Try your best to understand their preferred method in dealing with these issues and approach it in a way that will enhance their openness to hearing your feedback. It can help if you frame the problem in a work productivity way. For example: “I have found that I work best when X and I feel that putting Y system into place will help with my work flow. Would this work with you?”

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Difficult Work Conversations

July 9, 2018

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Are you dreading a difficult work conversation? Perhaps you are already anticipating it will result in conflict. At work, conflict typically occurs when there are different perceptions regarding: 1. Tasks/Goals 2. Process – Methods, Quality, Timing, Resources 3. Status/Roles and 4. Relationship – Personalities and Values.

In a survey of scientists, more than two-thirds report having between 1-5 “uncomfortable interactions” with people at work each week. More than 75% report spending about 10-25% of their time on “people problems”. Take a moment and reflect on how you typically respond to conflict? Some people feed off conflict and it energizes them; while others feel extremely drained by conflict and have a strongly avoidant reaction. Conflict is very personal and we all tend to respond in different ways, which can reflect both a mix of our cultural/familial upbringing, our own personality preferences, and our feelings about the issue at hand. Both sides often have strong emotions which leak into the whole situation. Here are some responses you might encounter in yourself or others when giving difficult feedback or having a strained conversation.

  • Avoidance – Not responding and withdrawing either immediately or in days to follow
  • Excess Emotion – Tears, anger, sarcasm
  • Denial – “No, I didn’t…”
  • Generalization – “Everyone else does the same thing…”
  • Over personalization – Feeling unnecessarily called out “Why don’t you like/support/value me?”
  • Rigidity and Focus on Rules – “You said do X and I did X.”
  • Attacking the Source – Yelling, threatening “Who are you to tell me that?”
  • Explaining without owning – Citing personal reasons, stress, deadlines, etc.

It can be easy to identify these responses in others, but not necessarily see it in yourself. Remember to pay attention to what your inner voice is saying; and, if needed, reframe it accordingly. How can you do this though when emotions are running high and your inner tape is on a constant negative loop?

    1. Breathe & Slow Down The calmer and more centered you are, the more likely you will be to handle difficult conversations and/or any negative feedback you could receive. Take regular intervals or breaks on days that are especially stressful, whether that is a walk or an extra coffee break. Try to lower your overall stress level before the conversation begins. Likewise, during a conversation, try to slow the pace. Being mindful of your cadence and pausing every now and then can help defuse the tension.
    2. Be compassionate Try to adopt the other’s point of view for a moment. What frustrations might they be feeling? If you feel your boss is being too hard on you, it might be because they are getting pressured from their boss. Recognize there might be professional or personal pressure points on the other person of which you aren’t fully aware. It can be difficult when negative emotions are running high but try to assume the best instead of the worst.
    3. Change Mindset
      Once you label a conversation as potentially difficult, you are more likely to feel much more nervous about it beforehand. Likewise, this is true if you label a person as trying. Do your best to neutralize the interaction ahead of time and you will likely have a much more positive outcome. 

It can be tempting to avoid the face-to-face confrontation and try to settle conflict by email; however, it is extremely likely that an email communication will only exacerbate the situation. It is hard to read tone and other cues for meaning and usually the content is misinterpreted in a negative way. So, do your best to prepare yourself and go and have the conversation you have been putting off!


Managing Summer Interns – Tips for Mentors

June 11, 2018

Last week, we started to welcome summer interns to the NIH campus and shared some resources which might be of interest specifically for them.  This week, we are focusing on tips for mentors. So, if you will be mentoring an intern this summer, be sure to read on!

Mentors may find it difficult to find time and energy to manage and train someone, all while trying to satisfy their own work demands. In addition, teaching and training someone is a skill that must be practiced. If you are new at it, it can cause stress for all parties involved. Wondering how you can improve upon your own mentoring skills?

Here are some ideas for mentors:

Be mindful in selecting your mentee. The mentoring relationship, if conducted with care, can be an incredibly rewarding experience for both mentee and mentor. If the match does not fit though, it can also result in a lot of stress and unnecessary effort on both ends. Therefore, it is crucial that the mentor chooses their mentee with care. Assessing the mentee’s motivation, taking similarities and differences into account, and starting the mentorship with a trial period are all steps both parties can take to ensure a successful match. Selecting a good mentee also requires self-knowledge: what are your strengths and weaknesses, how much time and effort do you have aside from your own work, and how many mentees can you realistically take on?

Set clear expectations for performance from the start. In addition to getting used to the new workflow, mentees are also likely getting used to personalities and working styles of their new colleagues and superiors. As this takes time, being explicit about your objectives and expectations for the relationship from the get go will result in more productivity and a better mentoring relationship. Be sure to challenge your mentee, but do not set expectations so high that they feel paralyzed and overwhelmed. Once you have seen the mentee’s performance, it is crucial to offer honest, specific feedback on a regular basis. Everyone loves positive feedback, but it is usually the negative feedback that sparks more learning and change. In instances where negative feedback is needed, it can be helpful to start off with a positive comment/suggestion, and perhaps end with one too. Once you have a sense that your mentee has attained mastery, escalate their responsibility over time to boost their confidence. Make sure to accelerate at a slow enough pace though!

Be accessible. Especially in the beginning. Even with the best communication and clear expectations in place, it can be difficult in a busy research environment to keep up to date and on the same page with both day to day tasks and long term goals. Projects and daily objectives change, mentees can learn of new opportunities that change their perspective. Therefore, keeping regular meetings, both formal and informal, can be a great way to check in, keep in the loop, and stay on the same page. Sometimes meetings are best in a formal context, but informal meetings over lunch or coffee can also help build rapport, and convey what you want in a more effective manner. No matter the context of the meeting, it is important for both parties to practice active listening, which includes dedicating full attention to the discussion, good eye contact, and engaging body language. In some settings, mentees could greatly benefit from even working directly with the mentor on a project; giving them direct exposure in your research and working methods could give them lifelong methods. No matter how you do it, it is imperative that you spend time engaging directly with your mentee.

Although mentoring a young researcher does not always result in a tangible benefit for the mentor, there are many valuable results that come from mentoring a student. First, creating a positive teaching relationship with a mentee often results in more work getting done for the lab’s or mentor’s own research project, saving time and energy. Playing the role of a mentor can also result in a greater self-understanding of one’s own strengths and weaknesses as a researcher and leader.  Lastly, mentoring a young researcher benefits the scientific field as a whole, because it provides direct hands-on learning experience for young professionals who might have no other way of getting such experience. If done correctly, it constitutes a win for all involved.

If you want to read more about mentoring relationships, check out previous blog posts on: Identifying Mentors: Why it Matters  and Getting the Most Out of Mentoring Relationships.

 


How to Write a Persuasive Personal Statement

March 19, 2018

It that time of year when applicants to medical schools are feverishly writing and re-writing drafts of their personal statements for medical school in anticipation of applying in June. To help our readers with this awesome task, Dr. William Higgins, Pre-professional Advisor with the OITE, has provided some suggestions that will help you to make a stronger case in favor of your admission to schools.

Persuade

To write a persuasive statement, Dr. Higgins encourages applicants to think about two main questions, “Why do I want to go into medicine?” and “How have I prepared myself to be successful?” In other words, applicants need to know that admissions committees are reading through thousands of essays looking for experiences that enabled you test the various roles (direct patient care, research, science, leadership, teamwork, service,) that a medical student and future physician will take on. Then you can select your key experiences that will persuade the admissions committee members that you have a strong foundation that has prepare you to succeed in medical school and as a physician.

When you are sitting down to begin writing your statement, Dr. Higgins urges you to stop and recognize that “generation of the content is a separate process from generating the actual text and words. Do not do them at the same time.”   Spend some time writing down and organizing your ideas and insight first. Then and only then, begin composing the text. Forego the writing strategies that are used in creative writing where you were “encouraged to use free writing, flowery language, complex sentence structures, and unfamiliar and artificial style.” For example, instead of writing write, “McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup” you would simply and directly write that, “McBride fell 12 stories…” Higgins suggests that a using logic and clearly worded statements to persuade your reader is appropriate because “medical or professional school essays must flow but don’t have to be a story.”

Dr. Higgins provides the following strategy to create a flowing and persuasive personal statement:

Step One: Do not write! Schedule time to generate the content.

  • DO NOT attempt to simultaneously brainstorm and start to write!
  • Find time when you are not under stress
  • Jot down your various ideas/experiences on notes (post-it notes) and place them on the wall or a large white board.
  • Use concrete examples from your life experiences that excite you

Step Two Choose key experiences and place them order that will create your argument

  • Organize your post-it notes on the wall
  • Select 1-2 themes of your essay
  • Then re-organize them determine the flow to persuade your audience
  • Start with the most important points (those that the admissions committees want to hear)
  • Note key phrases and catch words

Step Three: Start Writing Your Essay

  • Write an opening paragraph that forecasts what you are going to tell the reader during the statement.
  • Focus on key experiences. You don’t have to include everything. Do not rewrite your activities list.
  • Be clear and direct (i.e.: Tell them what you want them to know) No need for flowery language or many adjectives
  • Use the active voice and strong verbs.
  • Write often during scheduled times
  • Write positive statements and avoid negative ones. For example, don’t write, “I didn’t want to attend medical school or be a medical doctor initially…”
  • Eliminate unnecessary words such as, “Based on, In terms of, Studies have shown, Doctors are, It is thought to be, what happened was…”
  • Use correct punctuation
  • In the conclusion link back to your opening argument or thesis

Step 4  Proof Read and Edit

  • Put the essay away for 2 days before re-reading and editing
  • Read it aloud. TRUST YOUR EARS
  • Check for linearity
  • Underline the subject and verb in each sentence. Is the verb in the active voice, strong, appropriate for the subject?
  • Check each paragraph for structure, transitions, etc.
  • Check for continuity
  • Use spell check.
  • Schedule an appointment with a OITE advisor or counselor review your essay. Ask a peer.

Visit the OITE for all workshops and programs related to applying to professional schools. Seek similar services in your region or from your primary institution if you are part of our extended reading audience.


Thank You Notes

November 21, 2017

Heads Up!  With Thanksgiving, right around the corner, it is a terrific time to remind those of you who are (or will be) interviewing for professional schools, jobs and fellowships to send thank you notes.  One of the standard steps of applying for opportunities, this type of professional correspondence is often overlooked by applicants.   In many situations, a thank you note can be influential in moving you to the next stage in the process, or even obtaining an offer.  As written in a previous blog, giving thanks is very powerful for both the writer and receiver(s).  Here are some suggestions to help you craft a strong thank you letter.

Thank You

Who?      Send your letters to the primary person (Dean of Admissions, PI, manger, HR, or faculty member, student) who worked with you to coordinate your interview. If you met with more than one person, you can either send one letter addressed to the primary person and the committee/group who has interviewed you or individual letters.  Thank your interviewers after each telephone, Skype, or video interview and after second and final rounds.  Thank you notes can also be sent to acknowledge a network contact, mentor, informational interviewee, or recommendation writer.

 What to Include?      Thank you notes should be a short (one or two short paragraphs), signed and sent by you, to each opportunity that has interviewed you. While a hand-written personal note has historically been preferred, in today’s market, due to electronic application and communication during the job search process, it is appropriate to send an electronic thank you letter.  Simply thank the interviewers for their time interviewing you, emphasize something that you learned or positively experienced during the interview, and briefly restate your interest in the position and it match with your skills and interests.

 When?      It is best to send your note within a few days after your interview. Sending an electronic letter is quick and can be beneficial because decisions for positions are made within a few hours to days after your interview.  If you send it via US mail, that will take longer to be received and your interviewers will appreciate it as well.

Why?     Also, as part of job search etiquette, we know that are very appreciative and professionally thankful to those who appreciate their efforts to hire them.

 How?      It is best to send an electronic thank you letter to assure that your letter is quickly received and easily can be added to your electronic file, and/or forwarded to the others on your interview. Handwritten letters or notes (sometimes bought in a store) are appropriate and will be well-received as well.

Please feel free to visit the OITE website to schedule appointments with career counselors and to learn about additional programs and resources to prepare you for your job search.


Making the Most of Your Experience at NIH: The Scorecard

February 6, 2017

I arrived at NIH in October 2015. I attended the workshop “English Communication for Visiting Scientists” (ECVS) workshop in February 2016 because, as non-native speaker, I wanted to improve my communication skills. I remember that I was afraid of asking my PI to sign the written consent I needed to register for it. I soon realized how unwarranted my fear was! My PI was glad to know that I wished to improve my communication skills. This has been the first lesson I learned from The Scorecard: “If you don’t ask, the answer will always be no.”

The ECVS workshop. The 2-day workshop itself was very useful. I learned and practiced how to write professional e-mails and to be assertive. But most importantly, I realized that I was not alone. Instead, I was surrounded by people who understood the fear and the frustration of jumping suddenly into a completely different world. During the ECVS workshop, I learned about the Scorecard: an intensive training program to be completed within 6-months. The program (Fig. 1) envisages 10 scores earned by completing the workshops/activities. They are  grouped into four categories: career development, mentoring, leadership/management, and communication.

scorecard1-002

Fig. 1. Representation of the Scorecard categories. Numbers in squared brackets represent the points needed to complete each category. The activities I included in my scorecard are in bold.

The Action Plan. I am a person who likes challenges, so I decided to try and draft an action plan (Fig. 2). First, I identified among the listed courses/activities the ones I was most interested in. Then, I looked at the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) calendar, planned when to attend them, to ensure that I was able to meet the deadline. Last but not least, I identified what I call the “milestone” of my program, i.e. the most difficult and time intensive course. In my case, it was the “Scientists Teaching Science (STS) 9-week course”. I knew that completing it would have motivated me to keep following the plan. Among the other activities that I included in my plan, I chose to attend the Workplace Dynamics IV and V workshops and the mentoring course, and to give a presentation at OITE. I will briefly describe them in the next paragraphs by highlighting why I think they have been very useful for me.

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                        Fig. 2. My “action plan” to complete the Scorecard.

Career development. The milestone of my program – the STS 9-week course – is, in my opinion, a must for fellows aiming at an academic career. One of the assignments is to write the teaching philosophy statement, a fundamental piece of the academic job package! Having the opportunity to have a person with a long-term experience in education, read it and provide constructive feedback is priceless. Moreover, the course is entirely on-line and the teacher provides students with useful hints on how to organize on-line courses and incorporate active learning techniques in the classes. I simply loved it.

Leadership/Management. The Workplace Dynamics series opened my mind. At the beginning of the workshop, as soon as I realized that I had to practice by speaking to the person close to me, I wanted to run away! Yes, I am an extremely introverted person. I am afraid of talking to people, especially in a language that is not my mother tongue, and I prefer to write e-mails. E-mails that most of my colleagues never read, because they prefer to communicate verbally. It took me a while to realize that my approach was ineffective. The workshops provided me with helpful hints on how to address the differences in the personalities and communication styles between me and my colleagues that and made me more successful at work.  After attending the two workshops I needed for the scorecard, I decided to complete the series and I am going to attend the next Management Boot Camp.

Mentoring. The “Summer Research Mentor Training course” was another very helpful workshop. Similar to the STS course, one of the assignments was to write the mentoring philosophy statement. I have recently used both assignments as drafts for an application for an academic position. During the course, I learned the importance of aligning mentor/mentee goals and expectations and assessing differences in communication and learning styles. We all tend to communicate and teach the way it is most effective to us. Recognizing that what works for us does not necessarily work for other people and learn how to manage those differences is the first step to become an effective mentor. I look forward to have the opportunity to mentor a summer student.

Communication. As an introverted, not native speaker, presentations were a huge obstacle for me. I love to design and sketch them out but, until several months ago, I would have paid someone else to deliver them in my place. Most importantly, I would never have volunteered for a presentation. I now realize that my fear to present caused me to miss many valuable opportunities to practice! Now things have changed. Taking part in the activities suggested by the scorecard helped me to practice and build my confidence. I now look forward to presentations rather than trying to avoid them. The author of a book entitled “The Exceptional Presenter” states: “The time to practice is during your normal daily routines, when habits can be formed and mistakes are not costly.”

Final thoughts. All that said, the Scorecard simply acted as “firestarter”. The goal of earning a training certificate motivated me to engage in the program and meeting the deadlines helped me to stay on track. However, as soon as I realized how useful the program was, I attended many other courses beyond the Scorecard. When I earned the ECVS certificate, however, I was really surprised to know that nobody else completed the scorecard before me. So, I decided to write this post to encourage other fellows to engage in it.

Please fellows, don’t think you don’t have the time and don’t be a “rat in the lab”!  Please bear in mind that the knowledge you will gain by completing the Scorecard training program will help you feel better in your lab, communicate more effectively with your PI and colleagues, and develop your career. And please, please don’t miss any opportunity to practice your communication skills!

So, what are you waiting for? The next ECVS workshop is on March 1st, don’t miss it!

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This post was written by guest blogger, Dr. Antonella Ciancetta, Visiting Fellow at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and first fellow who earned the English Communication for Visiting Scientists Certificate


Making the Transition from the Bench to an Office

January 17, 2017

Managing transitions is an issue that you will likely face throughout your career. Many PhDs choose to leave the bench to work in an office. While some things stay the same no matter where you work, some of the cultural changes that accompany a desk job may be surprising. Here are  some identified by members of the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE):

Dress Code Alterations: While there’s no need to follow the lab dress code any longer (yay for sandals!), you also probably can’t dress as casually in an office. This dress code varies by each office setting, so you will want to find out as much information as possible about the workplace before interviewing, and then ask questions about the work culture and take note of how people dress when you interview. Likewise, you may want to consider wearing layers, as you will no longer have the added warmth of your lab coat or from being surrounded by running heavy equipment. For me personally, I did not realize just how many of my clothes were related to cartoons, sci-fi, or sports teams until I started working in an office. Thankfully, OITE has a more casual dress code than some places, so the transition was not as expensive as it could have been—but some of you may have to add a budget line for clothing.

Greater Interdependence: Being at the bench is often solitary work, and can allow you to have greater control over planning your day. However, in many offices (especially when you first begin), you may need help from your co-workers to find your way in the new setting. Your work might also involve more planning and execution as a team than what you currently experience, and you may discover a shift in power dynamics that differ from the lab (i.e. multiple supervisors for different projects rather than one PI). This can have some very positive aspects. According to Virginia Meyer, Director of Student Services for UGSP, “Even if you are friends with everyone in lab, there’s still a feeling of competition for resources, publications, attention, etc. Here [at her current office position], I feel like we work more collaboratively towards a goal rather than competitively on our own projects.” Therefore, it is important to have a “team” mindset, and to try to learn others’ favored method of communication so that you can all work together well. Additionally, depending on what kind of office you work in (such as anything involving the public), you may need to become accustomed to interacting with people from a variety of backgrounds all day. Many scientists mention that navigating team management and leadership is an early issue that they face in their career transition, and being able to interact well with others is an important soft skill that employers seek. In order to better prepare for these issues, you can attend some OITE workshops such as the Workplace Dynamics series and Management Bootcamp.

Changes in communication: When asking others in OITE about surprises in shifting to an office position, the sheer amount of emails that they receive came up multiple times. Keeping track of and replying to all of these messages can take up quite a lot of time, and easily derails your day. Likewise, there are additional office tools within email services such as Outlook (sharing calendars, meeting invitations, etc.) that aren’t commonly used by most scientists, but very useful in an office setting. “That first month of understanding Outlook and the volume of emails I received was overwhelming,” said Lori Conlan, Director of both the Office of Postdoctoral Services and the Career Services Center. Integrating some of these tools into your workday now could save you some time in the future. Additionally, in case you are not already using them, it is important to become accustomed to writing professional emails and the etiquette involved.

Hours Vary Less: Partially due to the increased interaction necessities mentioned above, it is important that you work within a more normal time range that is comparable to what is held by everyone else in the office. So while there are fewer odd time requirements (no need to be in lab at 7 am!), you may not have as much flexibility for maintaining the hours that you prefer. Also, there may be additional requirements or paperwork in order for you to request time off for appointments or vacations. Furthermore, while you are less likely to need to work on weekends, snow days are different because you might be able to telework. While teleworking can offer greater flexibility, it can also lead to unique challenges (technical difficulties, teleguilt, etc.). I find teleworking beneficial because I am able to gain back the time I would otherwise spend towards commuting, but I also enjoy being able to easily interact with my colleagues when I come to the office. Whenever possible, becoming used to more “normal” working hours now can help make this transition easier.

Different Physical Demands: “I think one of the things that surprised me the most was realizing how much physical activity I got when I was in the lab,” said Phil Ryan, Deputy Director of the Graduate Programs and Student Services. Thankfully, being away from the bench means fewer consecutive hours on your feet. However, the transition to spending the majority of your day sitting can be strange. Most desk work will also involve staring at a computer screen, which can take some time to get used to as well. Also, since you no longer work in a lab, keeping food and drinks at your desk is allowed and it can be easier to avoid getting dehydrated. Unfortunately, this increased availability can easily lead to snacking all day, and never taking real breaks because you can constantly continue working. This combined with a more sedentary workday can make it more difficult to stay in shape, and never taking breaks can lead to ceaseless eye strain while hunching over a keyboard. Therefore, it’s important to keep the benefits of occasional breaks in mind as you transition, and to continue (or finally implement!) self-care practices.

Lab Actually Prepared You Well: One of the best surprises that those interviewed, including Yewon Cheon, Director of the Postbac and Summer Research Program, mentioned was that “the skills that you learned in the lab are actually transferrable to an office job like this. All of the analytical skills and experience working to find a solution have been very useful.” Even if on bad days, you might feel as though you aren’t gaining any desirable skills from the lab, the truth is that you still learn a lot that is useful for other careers. If you need help identifying any of these skills, you can use this activity, and perhaps talk to a career counselor. Should you still feel that you are missing transferrable skills that would be really useful for an office position, you can try to gain them by serving as a volunteer or on a committee.

Overall, there are a variety of fantastic office careers for scientists, all with unique challenges and rewards. By learning more about potential cultural differences, as well as the environment and expectations at your new position, you can help smooth your transition when leaving the bench and entering a new workforce.

Post written by guest blogger, Courtney Kurtyka-Welsh, Education and Outreach Specialist, Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) at the National Institute of Health