What are the challenges of developing leadership capacity in STEM organisations?

“Brilliant at the science; not so good at the people focused aspects of the job.”

The brilliant but socially challenged scientist is a tired cliché that many scientific leaders are keen to shake off, but most people who have worked in a STEM context will recognise the type. Highly analytical, process driven and independent, the very characteristics that make them so good in the lab seem tailor-made to make them underperform as people managers.

On top of this, the age-old problem of promotion to management being based on technical skill rather than leadership potential creates particular problems in a sector that often fails to develop and reward soft skills in training and early research careers.

We’ve encountered these challenges many times over the course of twenty years supporting leadership development in science-oriented organisations. But what broader evidence is there that can help to characterise the unique challenges of building leadership capacity in STEM as well as point in the direction of some potential solutions?

Key factors: personality and training

Researchers have found plenty of evidence for a skills gap around leadership and soft skills among scientists. You can read more about it here, but below, we pick out a few of the most striking studies.

This paper explores how certain personality traits are linked to both interest and success in science. Introversion, dominance, ”thing” orientation, arrogance and hostility – all potentially antipathetic to emotionally intelligent leadership – are all more common among scientists than the general population.

To counteract or manage these tendencies, soft skills development opportunities are vital, yet play little role in scientific training. A survey of over 8,000 science PhDs measured perceived competence in a range of skills developed over the course of their training, and compared these to the levels required for success on the job. Whilst there was good fit in areas like discipline-specific knowledge and analytical ability, the biggest shortfalls were teamworking and collaboration skills, as well as the ability to manage others.

Yet scientists themselves recognise the importance of compassion, emotional competence and management skills in their leaders, rating them as more important than scientific brilliance when it comes to defining their most admired colleagues.

“You spend all your time as a student and postdoctoral fellow learning how to be a good experimentalist. Then you become an independent scientist, and if you are successful, before long you are no longer doing experiments because you don’t have any time, and personnel management becomes a major issue.”

Robert Donns, Chair of the Department of Microbiology

Better leaders, better science

Scientific leaders with a narrow focus on process, who fail to build good working relationships or who crack the whip without attending to the needs of those around them might get results in the short term, but they also create unhealthy team cultures that lead to attrition, demotivation and reputational damage in the end.

Supportive, emotionally literate leaders, on the other hand, foster loyalty and engagement in their colleagues, build psychological safety and motivation, and create a legacy that ripples out far into the future. By empowering a new generation of scientists and leaders, they help ensure both that the science is in good hands, and that their organisations remain successful for years to come.

Unlocking leadership potential in STEM

The key to unlocking the leadership potential of your most talented scientists is training and development.

Studies have shown that scientists who have had opportunities to receive quality training in management skills are more likely to achieve leadership positions, are better at supporting others when in these roles, and show higher job satisfaction than those who have not.

For some, training is best focused on developing confidence (or self-efficacy) in relation to their ability to lead and influence, or to handle a range of potentially challenging interpersonal scenarios.

For others, the most effective interventions can be about reframing management as a set of processes and tools, or redefining leadership as a way of increasing the reach and impact of their research and scientific legacy.

But in every case it is vital that the models, theories and tools taught are research-backed. Scientists are an analytical and critical audience, and are most amenable to ideas that have a clear evidence base.

Studies referenced:

  • Gregory J. Feist How Development and Personality Influence Scientific Thought, Interest, and Achievement, 2006 Review of General Psychology 10(2):163-182 doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.10.2.163
  • Sinche M, Layton RL, Brandt PD, O’Connell AB, Hall JD, Freeman AM, et al. (2017) An evidence-based evaluation of transferrable skills and job satisfaction for science PhDs. PLoS ONE 12(9): e0185023. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0185023
  • Main, J.B., Wang, Y. & Tan, L. Preparing Industry Leaders: The Role of Doctoral Education and Early Career Management Training in the Leadership Trajectories of Women STEM PhDs. Res High Educ 63, 400–424 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-021-09655-7
  • Amanda K. Hund, Amber C. Churchill, Akasha M. Faist, Caroline A. Havrilla, Sierra M. Love Stowell, Helen F. McCreery, Julienne Ng, Cheryl A. Pinzone, Elizabeth S. C. Scordato. 2018. Transforming mentorship in STEM by training scientists to be better leaders. Ecology and Evolution, volume 8 issue 20. https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.4527
  • Humphries, Jamie, Scientists With and Without Managerial Responsibilities: How Managerial Training Affects the Perception of Job Satisfaction. Dissertation, Georgia State University, 2018. doi: https://doi.org/10.57709/13468451
  • Fitzgerald, S. and Schutte, N.S. (2010), Increasing transformational leadership through enhancing self‐efficacy, Journal of Management Development, Vol. 29 No. 5, pp. 495-505. https://doi.org/10.1108/02621711011039240