Years ago, while working at a medical center, A. Christian Whelen, now the State Laboratories director for the Hawaii Department of Health, worked with a mycologist who gave him a pretty hard time. This person tended to make comments that sounded insubordinate. Recognizing that this employee was competent and dedicated, Whelen struggled to find a way to handle, and effectively communicate with, this lab member. The dedicated team leader did finally find a way.
“It took me about a year to figure out [that this person] just wanted me to give them a dose of their own medicine,” he says. That medicine, Whelen figured out, was to respond to the employee’s banter—comments that were always meant in jest, and not rebellion—with similar teasing.
“It was only playful banter,” Whelen says. “After this realization, there were no barriers to communication because we could relate to each other.”
Similarly, in another instance, when a chemist had a long-standing issue that Whelen was having difficulty understanding due to technical and literal language barriers, the lab manager sought insight from some of the employee’s coworkers to obtain clarity on the issue. After the root of the problem was revealed, Whelen was then able to work through the chemist’s supervisors to resolve the issue swiftly.
Both of these instances point to the fact that while there are some guidelines as to how to communicate with the people one manages, those in charge of running any type of organization or laboratory must be flexible and look for innovative methods to connect with, and transfer information among, their staff.
One example of an inventive way to communicate is the use of humor. “It’s disarming and draws people in,” Whelen says. “You can be serious without taking yourself too seriously. That said, be careful to stay on subject. Resist the temptation [to make] the humor or a side story the focus of the discussion; that becomes counterproductive.”
The importance of communication
Communication has long been the hallmark of successful endeavors. Not only does information need to flow freely within organizations and groups, but it also must be doled out in an easy-to-understand manner. Though theoretically simple, figuring out how to effectively communicate can be complex and require the ingenuity of everyone involved, especially those in charge—who often set the tone for the rest of the group.
“Without communication,” explains Kathy Barker, clinical assistant professor at the Department of Health Services, University of Washington in Seattle, “there is no data, there is no collaboration, there may be reduced funding, and everyone will be unhappy.”
Good communication, on the other hand, she adds, must be intentional. “It will not happen accidentally, and the principal investigator and lab manager can organize the lab to facilitate and reward communication. Little things—a seminar or jobs list that is always well thought out, updated, and available to all [or] a gentle nudge at a data discussion to someone who is shy—and big things—a weekend spent helping a non-English speaker prepare a talk and answer questions [and] a compassionate discussion of a project that needs to be changed—can all be part of your culture of communication.”
Whelen agrees that a lack of communication is often the reason for poor performance or low morale. “While this is true, there is no boilerplate solution to the problem. Supervisors need to understand how the communication broke down if they expect to fix it. Different people require different tactics, and this requires some versatility.”
To ensure the success of a lab, its members must learn to communicate not just among themselves but also with clients, subcontractors, funding agencies, community leaders, the media, and non-scientists by removing jargon and any potential sense of superiority in the language they use.
Embracing new methods of exchanging information
While the idea that communication is important has been around since the beginning of time and language, the modes that people use to transfer information has evolved, especially in the 21st century. In addition to in-person communication, people now employ technology to relay data and updates and even for just everyday chitchat.
“I will occasionally use text communication if I need to find someone,” says Rick A. Armstrong, laboratory manager at Lee County Environmental Lab in Fort Myers, Florida. “Everyone carries their smartphones with them, so it is an easy way to give short answers or request info.”
Other managers will use technologies not specifically meant for communication to share information—because if it exists and could be useful, why not utilize it? Barker, for example, uses social media or lab software to communicate with lab members or with folks who might be interested in visiting her facility. She’s always open to new methods of relaying information. “The venue is always changing, and you can check with lab members for media most likely to be used,” she says.
Another advantage of using technology is to transfer information faster than we were once able to. Whereas in years prior, managers might have snail-mailed a report, now they can simply use electronic mail for an almost instantaneous handover of data—both within and outside the organization.
“Going paperless and using digital signatures has greatly improved our ability to get out data to our customers quickly,” Armstrong says. “We e-mail packages of PDF reports to our clients unless they request an old-fashioned paper mailing, but who would do that?”
Furthermore, just like technology that is always evolving, the lab environment is constantly changing—even if it’s in small ways. New rules, updated standard operating procedures, changing method requirements, and updated supplies and inventory are a few of the areas that require a timely flow of information, all of which can be enhanced with the almost instantaneous ways of modern communication.
“E-mail is still the most effective method of communication because of its instant delivery and electronic footprint,” says Armstrong. “However, to be effective one must not overwhelm [others] with nonsense communication. Everyone is busy; only send out what is necessary and get to the point. Keep personal stuff for face-to-face dialogues, which I try to do daily in short doses.”
Face-to-face is still key
There is no doubt that technology has improved our methods of communicating, but most managers agree that speaking to employees, coworkers, and clients is still the best method to approach and understand one another.
“Personal interactions are still very important,” says Armstrong. “The free flow of ideas tends to occur when people get together and discuss. That is why I encourage department staff meetings that address the concerns of the department.”
In addition to periodic staff meetings, Armstrong holds monthly get-togethers to discuss matters that concern his staff, and caters lunch so everyone gets a chance to interact on a more personal level over a meal.
“We have also recently implemented a program where field technicians will take a lab analyst out in the field to experience their day, and on days that the field personnel are in the lab, they will shadow a lab analyst to get the feel for their jobs,” he says. “This has been a popular program and encourages more of a team effort to what we do.”
Whelen agrees and also believes in-person communication is necessary. He likes to walk around the lab to get a feel for what’s happening and whether anyone has any pressing issues they wish to discuss. He believes that managers should be aware of simple things such as their own nonverbal communication cues and those from their staff.
“Pay attention to body language, especially yours,” he says. “Also, think before speaking. While thinking out loud is okay for brainstorming sessions, it can monopolize a discussion and be quite distracting.”
Finally, use the problem-solving trait of lab practitioners to your advantage. Answer a question with a question to get them involved in the answer, instructs Whelen. “Direct them to resources such as procedure manuals, guidelines, regulations, and literature so that they can answer their own question. This reinforces evidenced-based decision-making, a strong suit of our staff.”
Leaders must crack the communication code
As is true of other science- and research- driven entities, laboratory directors and managers are fortunate to lead a workforce that is smart and data driven. Team members are often working toward the larger goal of providing truth to society.
“They want to contribute,” Whelen says. “So the wise leader spends much of his or her time listening. I often end a message asking if the message makes sense. Then I carefully consider constructive criticism—it’s much more valuable than instant agreement.”
Many laboratory communication breakdowns can be traced back to the leader of the lab. And experts caution that there is more to communication than delivery, and the main trick is to constantly evaluate one’s communications for effectiveness.
Barker says managers should ask themselves if everyone in the lab is getting information at the same time. If not, are you setting up pockets of competing power? Are you truly listening to people in seminars or conversations, or are you preparing what to say? Do lab members feel confident they will be heard when they speak with you? Do they speak up at seminars?
“Train yourself to listen deeply, and clarify what you are hearing as you go along,” she offers. “You can never assume everyone will understand what you mean and why you are saying what you are saying. When you do lab evaluations, include the lab members’ communication [ability]—with you, with peers, with other staff—as an important item to assess. And if lab members fall short on their communications, step in and mentor them.”
At the end of the day, there are many ways to communicate with a team. Each manager is tasked with finding the right methods for his or her team. “Crack the code,” Whelen says, “and the rewards are immeasurable.”