Are Rigorous Scientific Debates a Thing of the Past?

Leaders are wondering why employees aren’t speaking up

Originally published in Life Science Leader Magazine in August 2022 by Lori Dernavich. 

Scientists are taught to be interrogators, questioning every theory, experiment, variable, and outcome. This used to lead to rigorous scientific debate; but something is changing.

If you experience lively scientific debates where coworkers can disagree with each other and still go for a coffee afterward, congratulations! After 20 years of being a leadership development coach, I’m observing a shift. Healthy debates are waning, leaving leaders wondering why employees aren’t speaking up. Instead, they’re hearing comments like, “I don’t feel safe speaking up,” “They attacked me,” or “I don’t like being questioned.”

What’s behind this shift?

There are a number of contributing factors, but let’s focus on one: leadership skills. In Big Pharma, people tend to climb the career ladder more slowly than in startups and learn leadership skills along the way. In the startup space, CEOs and CSOs often come directly out of academia. Or if startups have seasoned C-Suites, they scale by promoting scientists into leadership roles prematurely. Should we expect inexperienced leaders to create optimal settings for rigorous debates? It’s different than debating peers. There are hierarchies and power differentials that can be difficult to navigate.

How to correct this shift?

    Equip scientists to lead. Scientists learn science. We shouldn’t assume they understand business, let alone people leadership. Provide coaching or mentoring, whether internally or externally, so they learn how to grow, motivate, and encourage employees.

    Focus on facilitation. Leaders need to be strong facilitators, or these debates can spin out of control as people speak faster, louder, and more passionately. Leaders must slow the room down so all can participate and feel heard. Do this by asking people to summarize or paraphrase what they heard. This ensures people are on the same page. A strong leader also reads the room, asking quieter people for their opinions.

    Be curious. The best leaders are curious and have a learning mindset. Frequently encourage employees to be curious. Careful though. Asking too many questions at once can be intimidating and leave others feeling attacked. Before launching into questions, state your intention. While our intentions are usually positive, don’t assume others know that. Once you’ve stated your intention (i.e. “I’d like to learn more about how you arrived at that conclusion.”), ask an open-ended question, wait for a response, confirm what you heard, and then continue with another question. This turns a defensive dynamic into a collaborative dialogue.

    Share your stories. Everyone is trying to be efficient, but it can backfire when we forego niceties to complete tasks. Like above, others won’t know your intentions, so they’ll make assumptions that are usually inaccurate and not pretty. When we hear about coworkers’ personal backgrounds and how they got to where they are today, we develop empathy for each other, which leads to fewer personal judgments and more openness.

Scientists are naturally curious but often cease to be so when interacting with others. What I enjoy most about my clients is their desire to learn. Becoming a great leader is about expanding that natural curiosity to grow yourself and others. Be the scientist you are, and experiment with these techniques.