The answer my friend is blowing in the wind – Whistle-blowers?

dandelionThere is ample empirical evidence that the most productive workplace environments are typically those in which there is efficient communication and trust between colleagues as well as a positive atmosphere. It makes sense that the happier the workforce is the more likely they are to work, and the more time they will want to spend at work. So it would seem obvious to assume that any deviation to this idea of research utopia, any instance of one individual being a ‘bad apple’ or ‘throwing a spanner in the works,’ would result in general action by the environment’s stakeholders, the workforce, to reduce or eliminate the problem.

As anyone with children knows, positive reinforcement is a better alternative approach to negative criticism in inspiring improvements in a childs’ behavior. But our research environments are not kindergartens and thus a variety of approaches might be considered with professional adults. Yet the KI Exit Poll and Employee Surveys continue to report a higher-than-expected incidence of demeaning or degrading behavior either witnessed or experienced by KI staff of all categories. One interpretation is thus that ‘men and women behaving badly’ continue to act with impunity, and that this must represent a failure in the general KI research environment to protect and police itself.

The question that is thus begged is why? Is it fear of confrontation, apathy, egotism or a lack of strategies that leads to a lack of responsive action by individuals, or is it a general malaise in the collective research culture that no one assumes responsibility despite all being stakeholders?

As professionals we should welcome a constant exchange of positive and negative criticism in the workplace, just as we accept these during the research publication process, for instance. We might indeed have the potential to improve ourselves through self-reflection, but is more likely that this will occur faster given appropriate inspiration from a critical friend. The practice of using ‘Critical Friends’ in assessment of one’s own teaching effectivity is a KI pedagogic innovation we should all be proud of. So why cannot we apply the same logic used in the classroom in the setting of the research environment?

Bob Dylan crooned that the ‘answer is blowing in the wind’, and one thing that blows wind is a whistle. Having just watched much of the OS2016 in Rio, it is obvious that the whistle is used to give feedback to athletes, to inform them when they have committed illegal or foul play, or the scoring of points. The referee/judge thus uses the whistle to communicate both negative and positive actions. The term whistle-blower was actually derived from this use of a referee whistle and the term was introduced by US civic activist Ralph Nader in the 1970s.

refereeIn the workplace the ‘whistleblower’ often has a negative connotation, being used as a derogatory term to describe someone who has ‘spilt the beans on/ratted out’ a colleague. The whistle-blowers in the KI Maccharini case have been lauded as both villains and heroes, respectively, by different factions of the workforce. But surely it is the responsibility, duty and right of every member of a research environment to be a whistle-blowing referee in order to conserve the work environment? Should it really require a few individuals with civil courage to speak up, when many others obviously do not, according to the polls?

So with all due respect to the iconic Dylan, I would propose that the answer to an improved research culture should be constantly blowing in the wind. Learning and re-learning from colleagues through the giving and receiving of positive ad negative feedback should be norm in our research culture, and not the exception.

If you are worried about your karma in being a whistle-blower, I suggest the following: before you criticize someone in your local research environment for something, first go and praise four other individuals for something good they have done. There is a lot within CMM to praise.

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Robert Harris, professor
CMM group leader: Applied immunology and immunotherapy

CMM Research Groups

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GENETIC DISEASES

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Cardiovascular and Metabolic Diseases