Communication Breakdown Between Upper Management and Research Staffs Presents Greatest Challenge

There is hardly a company in the world that hasn’t been affected by the downturn of the global economy, and we have now reached the point where—Gasp!— even science is taking a backseat to the bottom line.

While the common battle cry these days from upper management to their managers has been to “Do more with less!” the majority of the laboratory managers who participated in Lab Manager Magazine’s recent Business Management survey indicated that their upper management teams have not been very clear in communicating the direction of their organizations to them.

The condition of the economy not only has impacted how many organizations are trying to achieve their goals, in many instances it has actually changed the goals themselves. If these changes are not communicated from the executive level to the management level, managers are left to tell their staffs that they just don’t know where the company is headed or to tell them nothing at all. Either way, in an economy still cutting jobs by the hundreds of thousands per month, it has become a daunting task to maintain, let alone elevate, the delicate morale of employees who may be more concerned about job security than actually doing their jobs.

Gone are the days of laboratories being need-based establishments. Today, laboratories are first and foremost businesses that are often backed by investors who expect results sooner rather than later. This is probably why more than 70 percent of the participants in the survey indicated that today there is a greater need to take a more businesslike approach in the lab compared to two or three years ago, and also why more than 65 percent said that they think their management responsibilities will increase over the next one to two years.

Of the business management skills these managers planned to make an effort to improve upon in the coming year, communication was the overriding theme. They told us that they wanted to improve the level of communication with their staffs, but they also said that upper management must do a better job of communicating with them. Knowing the goals of the company and understanding the direction in which it is headed is necessary to establish and manage the expectations they have of their staffs and to assure them that their jobs are safe, so that they can focus on their work and be productive.

Not only is it important for managers to know what to expect from their employees, it may be even more important for employees to know what is expected from them by their managers and their companies. An overwhelming 84 percent of the participants in the survey indicated that sharing the organization’s mission and goals increases innovation among staff members and improves the accuracy and timely completion of research projects. This is why communication at all levels is so important. The lab manager must be the bridge that connects the mission and goals being established by upper management with the employees whose jobs are to achieve those goals.

“When people really understand what the mission of the strategy is, they can focus more on the work that they’re doing and they perform better,” says Dr. Scott D. Hanton, one of two section managers in the global analytical sciences department at Air Products and Chemicals in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “They can see that connection between what they’re trying to accomplish in the laboratory and how that benefits the business.”

“The workforce appreciates being in the loop,” says Dr. George Lucier, a laboratory analytical manager with the Battelle Memorial Institute who is stationed at the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility in Utah. “It helps them become engaged in their work so they’re not just there running sample after sample. They have a better idea of what the big picture is, and they feel as if they are stakeholders in that bigger picture.”

If upper management does not clearly define its expectations, it is difficult for managers to justify the importance of the work being done in the lab. When workers don’t understand how their individual jobs contribute to the success of the organization, it can have a negative impact on their morale. And morale is highly infectious.

“What I try to do more than anything else is to make every person on the staff feel like his or her contributions are really important,” Dr. Hanton says. “I try to ensure that the work employees are trying to do is challenging to them, is important to the business, and is recognized by somebody who cares. If I have a person who is challenged and is doing something the business cares about and his or her role is recognized in it, then I have greater morale among my staff.”

An informed workforce can also result in greater overall efficiency, according to Dr. Judy Guy-Caffey, manager of analytical services with TETRA Technologies in Conroe, Texas.

“Because you know what the primary goals are and where you should be moving, you don’t waste a lot of time on things that are extraneous or not necessarily conducive to meeting those goals,” she says.

Beyond communicating the goals of the organization to the staff, more than 80 percent of the survey participants indicated that empowering their staffs to take ownership and getting them involved in making positive contributions to the organization is an effective way to make themselves better managers.

“Without ownership, people are just doing things because they are being told to,” says Dr. James F. Hoffman, a 31-year veteran at Marathon Petroleum Company in Catlettsburg, Kentucky, and current manager of the refining, analytical, and development department. “They would much rather understand what’s going on, why and how and what their role is, and how they can influence things. So it’s much more important to give them ownership.”

“From the manager’s perspective, I don’t think you can really do it all yourself anyway,” Dr. Guy-Caffey says. “If you’re not delegating and empowering people in your group to take responsibility for various projects, then you’re probably not able to get everything done that needs to get done on every single project.”

Dr. Hanton believes that empowering employees makes managers look better.

“The more that people are empowered, the more they can make their own decisions,” he says. “They make decisions faster, which leads to better performance in the department. I can improve my management skills if I can give my staff the right information that empowers them to make good decisions fast, because that moves everything along faster and that’s what the whole business world needs now. Everything is focused on speed.”

With ownership comes accountability. More than 80 percent of the participants indicated that holding staff accountable for their performance is an effective way to motivate them.

“If they realize that their success is dependent upon their performance, they are more focused,” Dr. Hoffman says.

“If I’m holding everyone accountable, everyone is going to work harder and take more pride in his or her work,” says Dr. Hanton. “We have to give workers an effective guide as to what they’re supposed to do and then let them do it.”

While accountability is an effective means of motivation, many managers believe it is also a necessary shield against resentment toward those who are not performing up to standard.

“Not holding the staff accountable demoralizes the rest of the workforce when they see somebody they feel should have been held accountable for something and that person wasn’t,” Dr. Lucier says.

Accountability and empowerment are even greater motivators than pay raises, according to Dr. Kenneth Jensen, a laboratory consultant in Parker, Colorado, who spent 35 years as the superintendent of technology services in the U.S. Air Force.

“Give them goals to achieve and rewards for those goals, but they have to be meaningful rewards that will make their jobs easier or are going to benefit them in some way other than monetarily,” he says. “If you give them a monetary increase, they learn to live with that in six weeks.”

That being said, most companies are not currently in a secure enough financial position to be attempting to motivate their employees with pay raises. In fact, many labs are attempting to find ways to increase productivity without offering their usual annual salary increases, and some are even trying to do so while lowering their payrolls.

If done tactfully, companies can actually use payroll reduction as a powerful motivator. By having all the employees take a small reduction in pay to avoid potential layoffs, employees may feel as if they are making a direct contribution to the success of the company by doing their part to help weather the storm. They may also have a stronger sense of urgency to perform at a higher level.

However, if cutbacks and staff reductions are made without thorough explanations from upper management as to their relation to the success of the company, upper management risks destroying the morale and productivity of their staffs. Without proper communication from upper management, managers are left in the precarious position of trying to convince their staffs that the company is not in danger, even if they aren’t so sure of it themselves. Managers must be able to convince their staffs that their jobs are secure and that the reductions being made are for the good of the company and not just for the sake of saving money. This is a challenging task for managers in any industry, but, for someone who has spent most of his or her career doing science in the lab where conditions can be controlled and results hypothesized, dealing with the unpredictability and often incomprehensible nature of human beings can be a vexing experience.

“It can be a little bit overwhelming,” says Dr. Guy- Caffey. “In the scientific field, it seems as if people are moving up through the ranks by starting out as scientists who have all the scientific background you could want but not necessarily a lot [of background] in the way of business. One area of difficulty is not having much experience interacting with upper management. Then they may not have a lot of experience in actually supervising people. And if you don’t have any financial experience, it can be a difficult transition if you have to start doing budgeting or costing and things like that.”

While some businesses have the ability to reduce costs by modifying their operating procedures, laboratories typically do not. Procedures must strictly be adhered to, specific equipment and supplies must be used, and safety cannot be compromised. Today’s lab managers must possess a knack for thrift and a keen awareness of how every item and activity is impacting the bottom line. They must also be prepared for the eventuality that upper management will suddenly slash their budgets and tell them to figure it out for themselves.

“It’s all about efficiency now so that you can minimize your overhead and minimize the cost for the customer,” says Dr. Lucier.

“But you still have that pressure to get projects completed and get new things out there to help the company’s bottom line,” says Dr. Guy-Caffey. “You really have to be on top of things as far as still trying to get as much done as you can on projects without going over budget.”

“As a lab manager, I can’t afford to do long-term, academic- style science,” Dr. Hanton says. “I have to focus on the needs of the business, and that means being more streamlined in our activities, being more focused on the deliverables of the business, and really being a clear partner with the business to solve the problems that they’ve got today.”

“Years ago it was, ‘Let’s do it scientifically correct, and we’ll get paid for it no matter what,’” Dr. Jensen says. “Now you need to be aware of the business side of it and accept the fact that some things cannot progress, because you’re not going to be able to pay for them. Even so, you need to make a marked effort to perform everything scientifically and analytically correct.”

Perhaps the most telling revelation of this survey is that the contemporary lab manager has to have the proper mixture of scientific knowledge and business acumen— and not necessarily in that order. Now more than ever, the greatest challenge is not merely to achieve a scientifically relevant result, but to achieve one that is within budget, on schedule, and—most important—profitable.