Friday, December 08, 2006

When a group is too smart.

Google too smart? There is such a thing as being "too smart for your own good," and it can cause problems in several areas. One of those areas pointed out in the Google article is that smart (talented) people don't like playing second fiddle. It can lead to resentment, poor work ethic, and in extreme cases, active sabotaging of others' work. There is also an aspect of "my idea, my credit" which can poison relations. Bosses get credit for their underlings' work, even if those underlings get credit themselves, it is, at best, shared. Also there is a sense of not liking another's idea and not respecting it...especially if it is the boss's idea. As much as this may be an issue for Google, it is definitely an issue in academics.

From before, academic groups have graduate students, post-docs and a principle investigator. That is a whole lot of education and brain power in a small group. When there is functional flow of information and sharing of ideas and mutual respect things are copacetic. When there is a breakdown it can be a disaster. Intellectual property theft, accusations of dishonesty, and career debilitating working conditions can all result. Most of the time, differences of opinion are just that and can be worked out. Sometimes, however, those differences become ingrained as "right" and "wrong" and very little can be done to break them. For the most part, professors understand that there is little absolute in life, save that absolutes are wrong. Most post-docs and grad students realize that they have far less experience and expertise in the field and differing to those with more is wise.

The reason that academic research groups, by and large, function as well as they do is the transient nature of all group members save one. So long as the students and post-docs are (or feel like they are) learning, there is value in the group and there is meaning to working. This is further coupled with the knowledge of an exit. Knowing that there is an end, that it is not really too far away, and having specific "things to do" that get you there, allow for any disgruntlement to be suppressed. Again, this doesn't always work out, but by and large it does. When it does not, it is most likely because one of these things has been compromised. Not seeing the end can cause other stresses to break and those previously mentioned problems to arise.

In the "real world" there may not be a fix. The fact is that any group must have leaders and followers; there can only be one "smartest person in the room," and sometimes there are absolutes, especially when the question is posed as: "Which of these is better (best)?"

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