When I tell people that I am a scientist, they picture me in a hazmat suit or lab coat. Many scientists do that, but many of us don’t. Many of us sit in cubicles with laptops and communicate all day long – emails, meetings and reports, oh my! The work is interpreting data, making decisions and collaborating with others to improve the bottom line: better outcomes for the public.
Teach the craft, not just the content
We hire many scientists who are amazing at science, but aren’t necessarily well-versed in how to use science to get things done in a bureaucracy. We tend to train new staff heavily on content (policies, laws and procedures) but not much on the craft (meetings, communication and briefings). That limits what actually gets done.
How do you communicate a point effectively? How do you brief the director? How do you deal with difficult people?
Sure, employees could pick up these skills overtime but it takes longer, and for some, they continue to struggle with these essential skills throughout their career. We need to start teaching these skills with the same effort with which we teach policies and laws. Why? Because these skills make employees more effective, and more effective employees make a more effective government.
Make sure all new staff start to develop these essential skills.
Why it’s important: This is a big part of what we do. We communicate in groups in real time. We’ve all seen the memes that express “another meeting that could have been an email” with an exasperated and exaggerated image to drive the point home. But the real trouble with meetings isn’t format but how the meeting is run. Do participants know the purpose of the meeting? Do we have the right people in the meeting? Do you have someone monitoring the conversation for parking lot items to keep the meeting focused on the topic at hand? And most important of all, is everyone on the same page about what the next steps are?
Why it’s important: We all have a boss. Our boss needs to make good decisions about the work without having actually done the work. Decision-makers need enough information to make sound decisions, but too much information will make the briefing process inefficient. What information does the decision-maker need to make the best decision? What is the preferred briefing style for your organization? Is there a template, a guide or an example?
Why it’s important: We all make decisions or help other make decisions. It is important for employees to understand the Who (authority and impact), Why (desired outcome), What (the decision point), When (decision due date) and How(process and procedures) of making decisions in their organization. This is a difficult skill to learn and learning it should start as soon as possible. Potential subtopics include: how to handle discretion; how to communicate a recommendation to a decision-maker; how to avoid analysis paralysis; how to recover from decisions that don’t work out as intended.
Why it’s important: Communication is the art of translation and persuasion. We know a lot and have great ideas, but if we cannot explain them well (translation), we can not get others to support these ideas (persuasion). Potential subtopics include: how to write an effective email; when to call and when to email; how to respond professionally when emotions are high; how to give and receive feedback; how to develop effective presentations.
Why it’s important: I like to refer to this skill as personal operation and maintenance (O&M). We do fun and meaningful work, and what we do can impact millions of people. This is exciting and exhausting. It is important to learn how to keep our physical, intellectual, emotional, and social health intact as we carry out the missions of our agencies.
If you don’t gas up and get oil changes, your car won’t be efficient or effective. The same goes for people. You can’t neglect personal O&M and expect to work efficiently and effectively. Self care includes taking time to keep our skills fresh (i.e. updating our mental software), as well as stress management and work-life balance.
We must instill the importance of personal O&M into our employees early in their careers so they don’t get burned out, cynical or inefficient over time.
Present. Engage. Practice. Encourage.
So, how do you go about teaching these essential skills?
Present: First, it is essential to understand the basics of the craft and present them. Create a presentation that outlines the basic steps of the skill; think about it in steps, tools and tips. This will help you take a broad skill topic such as meeting facilitation and turn it into a tangible process someone could easily learn.
Engage: Next, engage with the material in presentation by asking questions and giving real-life examples. Organize some observational opportunities or have group discussions with guest speakers.
Practice: Then, have them practice by giving them work that requires the use of that skill. Give feedback and have them practice more.
Encourage: Skill development takes time and practice, so give corrective feedback with an encouraging tone. An encouraging tone is patient and implies that you believe that they will eventually succeed. Also, encourage others who have mastered certain skills to help others through skill-specific mentoring.
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Nefertiti is a Supervisory Life Scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She is passionate about employee engagement, mentoring and helping people and groups achieve their goals. Her leadership mantra is, “Prioritize people. Simplify processes. Celebrate progress.”
In her free time, she enjoys reading, drawing and writing. Nefertiti is the mother of a curious and compassionate seven-year-old, with whom she enjoys rediscovering the world.