Addressing Interpersonal Conflicts Throughout Our Professional Journeys

Ashley Pratt with mountains in the background

Ashley Pratt

Training can be a vulnerable point in an individual’s career. Positive relationships with peers and mentors promote the success of early-career trainees, who are continually learning from colleagues and relying upon these interactions to propel their careers forward. Careful navigation, with the support of trusted mentors and resources, may be necessary for individuals who are facing challenges within their professional relationships. When I began my training as a postbac at the NIH, interpersonal conflict was not something I was actively preparing for. 

The experiences of early-stage professionals have direct impacts on their long-term career goals. In the face of a mental health crisis among research trainees, positive relationships with advisors and a good work-life balance were found to be predictive of better mental-health and work experiences.1 So, perhaps a proactive approach to dealing with interpersonal relationships is important for trainees to consider throughout their scientific journeys.

Through my experiences as a postbac, I’ve come to find that positive relationships in the lab don’t just happen—they’re cultivated. Knowing what you need as a trainee, and the resources available to you, can help you proactively address the relationships with your mentors and peers. Like any other field, interpersonal conflict and challenges are bound to arise during research training. Although it might seem daunting to navigate new work environments and professional relationships, developing a skillset for dealing with these challenges is a valuable part of the training experience. Furthermore, there are many resources within the NIH to help trainees avoid (or address) these conflicts and advocate for their own career success.

Establishing goals and expectations early

Training needs vary from person to person, and with so many work and mentoring styles, it can often be challenging to navigate our professional relationships. Individuals may have learning preferences, prioritize goals differently, or benefit from specific forms of support. These factors are important to consider when establishing expectations. Doing so as early as possible ensures that you can cultivate a work environment and routine that supports your own goals.

Reflecting on your needs and familiarizing yourself with available resources are good places to start. In the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) Postbac Handbook (from 2019), Sharon Milgram, PhD, Director of OITE, and Yewon Cheon, PhD, Director of the OITE Postbac and Summer Research Program, state in the opening letter, “while senior investigators in your lab may provide some guidance, you will be expected to take responsibility for many things” such as “set your own schedule” and “actively seek learning opportunities.”2

Knowing what you’d like to accomplish during your training, and what you need to make that possible, are decisions that only you, as the trainee, can make. Resources provided by the OITE, such as the Postbac Handbook2, blog posts and information sessions, outline common objectives and opportunities for training at the NIH. Take advantage of these resources at the outset of your training to develop your own goals. 

Once your own needs and expectations have been established, it is important that you explicitly communicate those needs with the people around you. The earlier you do so in a new lab, the better. By advocating for yourself, you can help others understand how they can help you. If you have specific goals that require reasonable accommodations, you can work together with your principal investigator (PI) to find a schedule or plan that works for everyone’s needs.

Getting acquainted with your lab culture

In addition to setting and communicating your own goals, trainees should familiarize themselves with the preestablished community and culture of their workspace. Getting to know your PI, colleagues, and peers opens the door to helpful information and support. Trying to connect with these individuals as soon as possible, through informal interactions or scheduled meetings, is the best route to establishing familiarity in this new environment. Establishing expectations on both ends also helps ensure that you, as the trainee, are meeting the milestones of a successful and productive training experience.

Trainees should communicate their own needs, while also being receptive to the needs and expectations of the people they’re working with. After all, new trainees are entering a work environment with a previously established culture and practices. Being upfront and asking questions can help prevent any toes from being stepped on. In assessing the dynamics of scientific teams, L. Michelle Bennett, PhD, certified Executive Coach and former Director of the Center for Research Strategy at the National Cancer Institute,  and her colleagues found that many laboratory conflicts resulted “in part, from failure to state expectations explicitly.”3 In their commentary on the topic, they go on to state that “even something as simple and apparently obvious as work hours, when not addressed, can cause a great deal of stress for an investigator and uncertainty among lab members.” They suggest that mentors and PIs should write welcome letters and communicate lab expectations early on. As trainees, don’t be afraid to ask questions upfront to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Furthermore, trying to connect with one’s PI as soon as possible can help trainees voice their own needs while developing a relationship that is important for your future success. Depending on the personality of one’s PI or colleagues, a trainee may need to take initiative to establish these relationships by setting up meetings or seeking out conversations. In her book At the Bench: A Laboratory Navigator, scientist and writer Kathy Barker, PhD, states, “If the PI in your lab isn’t around a lot, take it upon yourself to stay in touch. Leave a note about a good result, pop into the PI’s office for 5 minutes, try to have lunch together. It’s your career, and you are the one to be hurt if the PI can’t remember you when it is time to write a recommendation.”4 Although doing so might seem daunting, establishing familiarity with the immediate work community is essential to cultivating a supportive environment.

Facing conflict head-on

Conflict can occur in any work environment. If you’ve done everything you can to cultivate positive relationships and you still find yourself in the middle of a tense or challenging situation, there are many resources available to help you improve the conditions of your work environment. However, open communication is typically a good place to start. 

In an interview with Erin Walsh, PhD, Director of the NICHD Office of Education, Dr. Walsh stated that a common problem she encounters with trainees and their colleagues/mentors is a lack of communication. Often, she adds, the main source of tension could be resolved if both parties were made aware of the problem through open conversations.  

Dr. Walsh also acknowledged that, unfortunately, sometimes open communication is not enough. You can always reach out to peers and mentors for guidance and support. But, if additional support and guidance is needed beyond your immediate network, there are many institutional resources at the NIH that you can turn to. Below is a brief list of those resources. 

NICHD Office of Education and NIH OITE

Individuals within these offices are happy to help NICHD researchers and trainees by talking about the concerns and challenges faced by these individuals. Drs. Walsh and Milgram, the respective directors of these offices, actively encourage trainees to contact them to schedule conversations. If needed, they can point trainees toward resources that will be the most helpful. Many helpful individuals in these offices can be reached by email:

NIH OITE Wellness Program

This office provides resources to directly address the well-being of trainees through seminars, group discussions and individual counseling. Organized events such as skill-building groups and wellness activities are available to help trainees reflect and develop tools for dealing with stress. 

If you are facing a stressful work environment or relationships, wellness advisors are available to meet with trainees one-on-one for direct support and counseling. These individuals can simply listen to you or provide more formal guidance. 

Information about these wellness resources, as well as wellness and resilience blog posts and other online resources, can all be found on the Wellness Program website

The OITE wellness office can also be emailed directly to ask for more information or to schedule an appointment with a wellness advisor: oite-wellness@nih.gov.

NIH Office of the Ombudsman

Trained professionals in this office can work directly with you to address any concerns relating to personal, interpersonal, or group challenges you may face within the NIH. This office can provide confidential support. 

The NIH Office of the Ombudsman can be contacted by email: ombudsman@nih.gov or phone: 301-594-7231.

NIH Employee Assistance Program (EAP)

The NIH’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), through the Division of Occupational Health and Safety, is devoted to supporting the health and wellness of NIH employees. EAP consultants are available to discuss challenges and assess your needs if you are facing a challenging situation. These individuals can also provide guidance and coaching through workplace conflict. This office can provide confidential support. 

This office can be reached by phone: (301) 496-3164 
Business hours: 8 a.m.–5 p.m., Mon–Thurs, 7:30 a.m.–4 p.m. on Fri.

If you are a victim of harassment or experience any other serious concerns that require an escalated response, the NIH Civil Program and the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion can get involved formally.  

By familiarizing oneself with these resources and considering these suggestions, hopefully trainees can feel more empowered to cultivate their own training environment to suit and support their needs. Science is a group effort. Therefore, these relationships are not one-sided and shouldn’t be addressed by the trainee alone. Mentors and colleagues can also support trainees by being conscientious of the trainee experience and directly communicating their expectations and needs.

Resources

References

  1. Evans TM, Bira L, Gastelum JB, Weiss LT, Vanderford NL. (2018). “Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education.” Nat Biotechnol. 36(3): 282-284. https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.4089
  2. Postbac Handbook. (2019). Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE).
  3. Bennett LM, Maraia R, Gadlin H. (2014). “The ‘Welcome Letter’: A Useful Tool for Laboratories and Teams.” J Transl Med Epidemiol 2(2): 1035. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc5479682/
  4. Barker, K. (2005). At the Bench: A Laboratory Navigator (Updated Edition). Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.