Egosystem management. Or how tantrums and unprofessional behavior are hindering conservation

In helping to organize several meetings and events for conservation groups, I’ve frequently encountered conservation professionals loudly declaiming “Don’t you know who I am!” and expecting special treatment. Recently I got an email from someone whose abstract was rejected by a conference committee I was assisting, in which they had quite a tantrum. There were lots of exclamation marks and capital letters saying that it was unfair they were rejected and they will never ever go again to any meetings by this professional society and will resign their membership. I was asked by someone outside the conservation field whether it was usual that we get such childish and temperamental responses to rejections. Sadly we often do – whether it be rejections for journals, jobs or conference presentations.

However, I also told that person that anyone who’s been an academic for a while gets used to being rejected. Few papers get accepted at first submission, for example. So most conservation professionals take it in their stride. Moreover, anyone who is in the conservation field should really get used to difficulties and failures, as these are all too frequently components of the job. A conservation biologist is not going to last long if they go berserk at the least slight or hard knock or have a fragile ego. Conservation is often about conflict, and trying to resolve this conflict through reasoned argument, understanding and diplomacy. You often get knocked down, but to quote Chumbawumba, you just have to “get up again”.

As a result, one could reach the conclusion that someone who is really childish, temperamental, rude etc. should not last long in real-world conservation. Sadly, such tantrum-throwing individuals may last longer, or even thrive, in academia, but that’s another story. However, that person will be a horror for colleagues in the field. So for the case above, resigning from a society or refusing to go to conservation meetings is like natural selection, weeding the weak and unfit from the gene pool. If they are going to ditch going to premiere meetings to learn the latest cutting-edge conservation and science over a run-of-the-mill abstract rejection, then it’s their loss and frankly our gain…

However, despite the potential forces of natural selection, inflated – yet fragile – egomaniacal bloviates are still all too common in the conservation world. There are several major marine conservation initiatives that foundered because, for example, coalitions would not let certain organizations have top billing in materials, and the thwarted organizations walked away, taking their essential funding with them. Others would not cooperate with conservation academics from a competing institution, and held back essential information and resources, causing the project to collapse. Frequently managing a conservation project is more about managing the egos of collaborators, or the egos of their organisations, rather than managing the actual project itself. This type of “human resources” management is, unfortunately, a skill in which few conservation professionals receive any training. Too frequently these days, in order to achieve conservation success, you have to first manage the ego-system, before finally getting down to efforts to restore the eco-system.

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