Are difficult scientists creating waves?

Here are tips for dealing with them

Every clinical trial administrator has encountered the occasional investigator who causes staff to pop antacid pills the minute he or she walks into the room. And while large research institutions tolerated such personalities in the past, with today’s tighter focus on research compliance and ethical concerns, such personalities now can be a real problem.

There are several common personality and behavior problems that clinical trial staff might encounter among investigators, including the following:

  • "Rules don’t apply to me."

"One of the biggest concerns is a scientist who feels the rules don’t apply to him," says Cindy Kiel, JD, CRA, director of sponsored projects at the University of Nevada, Reno.

"A lot of times these are brilliant people," she explains. "When dealing with cutting-edge research, what most researchers are doing is pushing what is known, disproving what people thought they knew."

Because of the maverick personality needed to succeed in this type of research, often the successful investigators also are people who are more creative than bound to rules and conventions, Kiel explains.

"Sometimes that can flow over into the compliance world where an institution might end up with legal and liability concerns if the individual feels the rules don’t apply to him or that they were made to be broken," she says. "There are times when you need to think outside the box and times when you need to play inside it."

The solution to dealing with investigator who refuses to follow rules and regulations could be terminating the person’s position or contract; although with university tenure tradition, that is extremely difficult to do, Kiel notes.

"If the person causes extreme liability to the institution then you need to go down that road, but if the person will listen to reason, then the team approach sometimes will work," she suggests.

By this Kiel means that research administrators assemble a group of people at the institution to sit down with the investigator, explain what the problem is and why it’s a problem, and let the person know that if things don’t change there will be severe repercussion, such as a job dismissal, she says.

"Hearing stories about extreme examples of what happens with noncompliance does help," Kiel says.

For instance, when federal officials brought criminal charges against faculty at another institution because of their inaccurate effort reporting, that got the attention of researchers, Kiel notes.

"When our faculty saw their colleagues facing criminal sanctions they started calling our office to say, Tell us what the rules are because we want to follow whatever the rules are, and we don’t want to get close to the edge,’" Kiel says. "It has much more of an impact when it’s someone they know who gets into trouble."

  • "Don’t bother me with details."

"A second variety of difficult scientists is the individual who feels like, I’m only here to do my science, and don’t bother me with the business details — that’s not why I was hired,’" Kiel says. "They don’t want to pay any attention to budgets and paperwork and procedures and bureaucracies, and they don’t feel like it’s even their duty or role."

The most effective way to cope with these types of personalities is through proper training of the roles and responsibilities, especially when the person is first hired or learning to become a researcher, she says.

"Whenever you accept funding there are strings attached, and some faculty simply don’t want to have to deal with that and haven’t been trained in it," Kiel says. "So the solution is to train them to accept the fact that when they accept money they do have a role to play in day-to-day management and regulatory compliance."

This is another type of investigator who might learn from some extreme examples. For example, there was the situation where an investigator was using toxic chemicals, including anthrax, and he didn’t bother with the paperwork that tracked the substance, so when federal officials began to investigate the use of the substance, they filed criminal charges against the scientist, she says.

  • "It’s not my world, and I don’t want to have to do it."

Then there’s the type of investigator who simply refuses to follow some rules and obligations, such as taking time for mandatory training courses, Kiel says.

"A lot of institutions have made training mandatory, and those sometimes are the ones who have been hit with legal or audit findings," she notes. "That gives them the clout on campus to say, We will make this training mandatory.’"

Still, there are always the scientists who will say the rule shouldn’t apply to them because they haven’t gotten into trouble or because they are so low on the federal radar screen that no one will be looking over their shoulders, Kiel says.

One solution is to make the training as pertinent and valuable as possible for investigators, so they cannot use the argument that they wouldn’t learn anything from it.

Another solution in dealing with scientists who refuse to cooperate and follow documentation rules is to assign them an administrator who will help them out with the paperwork load, Kiel suggests.

"If the investigator is bringing in decent amounts of outside grant funds, then your overhead return can be used to apply to those resources," she adds.

  • The abusive scientist.

Typically, the personnel department should handle the investigator with an abusive nature, although it might be impossible to turn this type of situation around, Kiel says.

"I’ve heard of faculty who are abusive to students and other faculty to the tune of even assaulting another person," Kiel says. "These are people who have difficulty working with other scientists."

When clinical trial staff have to work with such a person, it’s probably a good idea for the administrator to be present, she notes.

Also, an administrator, who no doubt will hear warnings about the abusive investigator before first meeting the person could be proactive in defusing the situation by inviting the scientist out for coffee in an off-campus location, Kiel suggests.

"Get to know the scientist as a person first," she suggests. "Take that approach: Get them off-campus and outside of the work arena, pay for their coffee, sit down and say, I’m really interested in your science and what you’re doing and what benefits you’re providing to the community, and I really want to hear about it.’"

This builds a rapport with the individual that will make it easier to talk with the person when a problem arises, Kiel explains.

Another strategy is to change one’s own attitude toward the difficult personality, she says.

"When I’m dealing with someone I just want to strangle, I picture a relative who is like that but is someone whom I love," Kiel says. "You can’t take these people personally, and while they’ll sometimes attack you personally, you can’t take it personally."

A third strategy is to tell the clinical trials staff that before they get to the point of wanting to scream and yell and react angrily to such a person, they should forward the person on to their supervisor, saying, "Why don’t you speak to our director?" she says.

Often when an angry person is sent to someone new to handle the situation, the person will tone it down a little, Kiel says.

It’s also a good idea for administrators, and maybe even the staff, to learn communication skills that could help in dealing with difficult and angry people, she suggests.

Such skills could follow the judo model of defense/offense in which if someone is arguing about something, you agree with them on some element of their complaint because this will disarm them, she says.

"Find that element and agree on that because they’re not expecting it," Kiel says.

For example, if an investigator calls to complain about a delay with a proposal, the research administrator could say, "I agree; three days seems like an awful long time for a signature," she says.

This approach pops the balloon of their aggressiveness and prepares the situation for the second phase in which the research administrator compliments the angry investigator by saying, "Most people wouldn’t have called in to let me know they were upset, so I think it took a lot of courage to call in," Kiel says.

Now that the person’s anger is defused, it’s time to get to the root of the problem because they’ll be willing to listen, she adds.

"You have no control over another person and you can’t change their mind, so throw away that expectation up front," Kiel says. "What you can change are your own attitudes."

If a mistake has been made, then own up to it, and if not then there’s no reason to let the other person’s accusations affect how one is feeling, she says.

  • Cultural misunderstandings.

Sometimes the difficult scientist is someone who comes from another country and culture, and the main reason for the difficulty involves vastly different worldviews.

For instance, research staff sometimes encounter difficulties when dealing with scientists from nations where women are expected to follow proscribed roles regardless of their position and training, Kiel says.

Kiel heard of an extreme example of this type of difficulty: An investigator from a country where women always walked 10 paces behind men and who never sat in the same room as a man refused to have any contact with a female administrator, who was trying to talk with him about the problems he was having with other staff, she says.

"Because the man wouldn’t come to her office, the administrator tried to speak with him outside his office, but he kept walking ahead of her, and as he walked faster, she walked faster until she was chasing him," Kiel recalls.

Finally, the administrator called him on the telephone and said, "I understand that in your country it makes you uncomfortable to be this close to a woman, but we really need to discuss the issue because this is the United States, and what you’re doing is considered to be discrimination," she says.

The administrator further noted that she and the scientist needed to figure out a way that he could interact with female colleagues without making this an uncomfortable situation, and so they decided that he could stand in the doorway of the administrator’s office when they needed to have a discussion, Kiel adds.

"Usually, you don’t know about cultural differences until something happens," Kiel says. "So this is a hard one."

However, it can help if a research administrator has traveled around the world and understands how it feels to be a foreigner, she notes.

It also helps if the foreign scientist has someone discuss potential differences and conflicts up front and to tell the person what is expected to happen in this country, Kiel says.

"There are circumstances where we will call upon department chairs and deans to solve the situation," she adds. "The vast majority of faculty are very nice and will make changes if told about the problem."