We recently hosted three newly independent investigators who run research teams humming with activity and people, who told us what it takes to manage a lab full of humans in all their idiosyncratic glory.  Here are their tips:

Defining Expectations and Gathering Feedback

  • Define your expectations of your team members and communicate them clearly and consistently.
  • Ask your team members (students, post-docs, research assistants, etc.) what their expectations are of YOU.
  • Give people responsibility
  • Celebrate negative data. Trainees and staff sometimes feel pressure to get the “right” results and celebrating negative data helps to alleviate this pressure.
  • Harmonize expectations between employees, grad students, and postdocs; make the playing field as equal as possible given constraints of institutional expectations for different job categories.
  • Use feedback, and create the opportunity to receive feedback.
  • As a manager, actively seek training in management – be thoughtful concerning your own development as a manager, not just as a scientist.

Encouraging Buy-In

  • Lab and mentorship meetings can be in a group setting on a regular basis so that everyone in the lab/mentees know what everyone else is doing. This also helps learning and cross coverage in the lab.  But don’t exclude the one-on-one meeting times with mentees every 1-2 weeks.
  • Allow every team member – from students to research staff to trainees – to have their own project.
    • While the primary focus of our team is pushing the main projects forward, each person has a small side project that they are working on during their down time. We have students, research staff and trainees who submit abstracts and present at national meetings because of this.
  • Explore opportunities for every individual in your team to develop and advance their career, whether they are a postdoc, research analyst, or administrative assistant.
  • Encourage camaraderie among the team.
    • For example: Buy lunch for everyone once in a while. Our group goes out to lunch every time someone gets a paper accepted – the PI’s treat.
  • Make your team members feel valued and respected.
    • Lead by example – don’t ask people to do things that you would not be willing to do yourself.
    • Involve your team members in decisions that will affect the group at large.
    • Put the day to day tasks into context. I often send my grant proposals to my trainees and staff so they understand why I am asking them to do 27 different western blots.
    • When on-boarding a new team members, enlist the help of your whole team.
    • Keep an ear to the ground for administrative items such as job reclassifications so they are not a surprise to you and your team.
    • Remember people are your most valuable resource!

If It Goes Wrong

  • When you start to have “trouble” with a team member, document early and document a lot.
  • Get HR involved ASAP – they are present to help.

Managing Up

  • Mentorship is a two-way street.  You need to “reverse mentor” your mentor.  Not all mentors are perfect, but nearly all are well-meaning.
  • Help your mentor to be her/his best mentor and to set up a productive relationship in a variety of ways:
    • Value her/his time.
    • Keep a running agenda of items to discuss by email or your next meeting.
    • Keep emails short and to the point.
    • Not all meetings need to be 30 or 60 minutes.  Come prepared to optimize efficiency.

Other Resources

  • Sign up for the Harvard Business Review brief tip of the day.
  • Check out the Management and Leadership tags at Edge for Scholars

 Thanks to Dr. Eric Austin, Dr. Julie Bastarache, and Dr. Christine Lovly for these tips!

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1 Comment
Helen Bird says:

I really like the idea in this related post about management styles.
https://edgeforscholars.org/go-pee-academic-management-lessons-i-learned-from-audie-cornish/

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