Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Best Part of My Week

Two years ago I made the transition from academic science to data science. There are many aspects of industry that mesh better with my working style. However one very important industry practice that I feel is lacking in academia (at least for many of the people I have spoken to) are mechanisms for regular evaluation and feedback  especially for graduate students and postdocs.

Lately I've been facilitating workshops on the Impostor Syndrome and having many conversations with people about my process of dealing with and overcoming my own impostor feelings. For me a huge problem with my experience in graduate school was a constant nagging fear that I wasn't performing at an adequate level. There are so few metrics by which to measure success; if I didn't published N papers, make any major discoveries, or win any prizes or grants  how was I to know if I was ‘cutting it?’ And even if I did accomplish some of these milestones, there were always stories of other people who did it more, better, and faster. This was the perfect breeding ground for my impostor thoughts.

I suspect from my advisor's perspective, he would have told me if there was a problem, and so silence meant everything was ok. For me the lack of level-setting, feedback, timelines, evaluation, and postmortems on projects made me assume the worst about my progress and performance. I almost always went into meetings with my advisor convinced that today would be the day he would fire me.

After giving my Impostor Syndrome workshop at Caltech, a graduate student asked me if I felt this way with my boss at my current job. I realized that the answer was a resounding no. I believe what makes the biggest difference is that I now get constant evaluation and feedback; I don't have to guess how I am doing, because I am told on a regular basis. It's not that I am perfect at my job, nor is it that I never get negative feedback. However with every mistake or problem there is a conversation where we focus on a solution: How could we have done this better? How can we learn from this? What should we do to avoid this happening again?

There are many resources online about how to create feedback mechanisms within your workplace. I am not going to rehash them here. I do want to describe something we do at InstaEDU, which I think is unique and easy to implement in an academic setting.

Every Friday at InstaEDU we have a company wide meeting (there are 25 of us). Prior to this meeting we fill out this simple form:

Then during the meeting we each go around and read what we wrote on this form out loud to each other. This seemingly simple practice has had a profound effect on my impostor feelings, experience at work, and interactions with my coworkers.

First and foremost, it is very important to regularly acknowledge our own accomplishments. There has been extensive research showing that values affirmation alleviates stereotype-threat and impostor syndrome. This is especially important for people who are underrepresented in their workplace or field. 

By simply taking a few minutes every week to publicly acknowledge what accomplishment I am most proud of, I am regularly reminded of the value I provide to my company. This combats my impostor feelings, it affirms my self-value, and it allows others an opportunity to learn about what I am doing. Even when I have a week where I feel like I haven't been productive at all, I can always find something I am proud of. I think this is the single most important practice for overcoming my impostor syndrome.

At our weekly meetings, most of the time is spent on the second question above: "Who deserves to be recognized for doing something awesome this week?" Giving feedback is challenging, even positive feedback. I see new employees at our company feeling awkward about giving praise to others. However within a few weeks, they go from feeling awkward to embracing the opportunity to acknowledge their peers. This is my favorite part of the weekly meeting because I get to see what people are doing in the company that is valuable. Not only is it great to hear about the awesome things others are doing, this helps me improve my own performance. 

People are acknowledged for a positive attitude in the face of a difficult customer. People are acknowledged for having a great insight. People are acknowledged for building a collaborative environment. People are acknowledged for handling a mistake gracefully. Hearing about what others do that is "awesome" has taught me so much about how to be a good colleague and widen my own skill set.

My proudest moment at InstaEDU was when a (junior) engineer added some code to the website that broke our billing system and accidentally charged customers. It was a stressful mistake that required a bunch of extra work for people across several teams. During our Friday meeting, this engineer got the most acknowledgements of anyone in the company. Everyone praised him for taking ownership of the mistake, keeping calm during this fiasco, systematically fixing the problem, and doing it all with a great attitude. It could have been something that everyone ignored or swept under the rug. People could have focused entirely on the mistake, and not recognized the grace with which the situation was handled.

Of course it's also great to have my coworkers acknowledge me for doing something awesome. In graduate school I never felt like anyone noticed or cared what I was doing. At InstaEDU, I don't wonder if people notice when I am working hard or doing something particularly challenging, because I am explicitly acknowledged and told that I am valued.

I think that if people could get beyond their initial discomfort around giving feedback, and tried to implement the above in their research groups and departments, they would be surprised at the positive impact it has on the performance of your team and the culture of your group.

If you are interested in learning more about overcoming impostor syndrome, please sign up for my workshop at the 225th AAS Meeting in Seattle.

Angie Little runs a workshop on Design Principles To Support STEM Students in Being Proud of Their Work which she will also be talking about at the AAS.


Nonnormalizable said...

The InstaEdu weekly practice sounds awesome! We don't have anything like that at Microsoft, but there's another thing about praise-giving in the industry that really affects me positively. Oddly, it's the common and expected receipt of negative feedback!

I usually get one (usually small) honest piece of feedback about something I could have done better every week. This makes any positive feedback much more real: If I have impostor syndrome, in manifests as thinking that anyone praising me is just being polite or kind. If I know that someone isn't afraid to criticize, their praise reaches far deeper.

John Johnson said...

Excellent post, Jessica! I felt the same way in grad school. There were so many fuzzy contingencies, it was hard to know when I was doing well and when I wasn't. And given how self-critical scientists are taught to be, I always imagined the worst.