Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Acting Out

A unique management workshop allows lab managers to resolve issues in a simulated and safe environment.

by John C. Galland
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Most laboratory managers are trained to run a laboratory by working in the labs of others and by their own trial and error. While much can be learned from the growing management literature for scientists, there is no substitute for practical experience. Or is there?

At the Laboratory Management Institute (LMI) at the University of California, Davis, educational programs provide laboratory managers with the opportunity to practice managing a laboratory in a simulated live experience called LabAct. Participants in the workshop bring real, everyday problems they face in their labs and practice resolving them in a safe environment before implementing the solutions back in their own labs. Often, theatrical professionals (LabActors) are incorporated in the practice.

For instance, if there is a conflict between two people in the laboratory about noise, one LabActor might play “Chatty Cathy,” a “Type-A” noisy employee, and another LabActor might play “No-nonsense Nate,” a “Type-B” employee who is annoyed with Cathy and has come to the laboratory manager, to resolve it. What would you do?

Whatever you decide, without judgment a LabActor plays you trying to resolve the issue. “How did that work for you?” the LabActor asks you. The other LabActor says, “OK, try it another way and then another way until you find a way of resolving the issue that resonates with you.”

Whatever the issue, a LabAct simulation can be constructed to enhance your competence and confidence as a laboratory manager. Other participants in the workshop will help find alternate solutions, which the LabActors will play out as well. The literature can be consulted right there to determine whether your solutions are grounded in leadership and management theory and what others before you have discovered; for instance, that we interact with people and not the labels sometimes given to them, such as “Type-A” or “Type-B.” In fact, the learning method used at LMI workshops is based on something you already know very well—the scientific method

Throughout the workshop, participants formulate testable (or, more precisely, falsifiable) hypotheses for solutions to management problems and then make observations as those hypotheses are played out in a LabAct experiment. Additional data is gathered from the literature and from others at the workshop. Analyzing all the observations and data, participants draw their own inferences as to the success or failure of the proposed and now practiced management solutions.

Issues that workshop participants have explored include dealing with problem employees, getting laboratory employees to write and follow standard operating procedures precisely, showing favoritism, giving and receiving credit, coping with absentee managers or micromanagers, research misconduct, managing the budget, using shared equipment, and so on.

Can’t attend or afford to attend a workshop? Soon you will be able to get much of the educational material free from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Research Integrity (ORI) web site at LabActs covering many of the issues experimented with by workshop participants are on the site. Supplemental educational material also is available.

In addition to LabAct, other methods are used at the workshops. For instance, most laboratories don’t come with an instruction manual, so participants are encouraged to create one for their lab. Preparing a laboratory manual that includes more than just standard operating procedures (SOPs) for laboratory methods, but also SOPs for managerial procedures, such as training new employees, can go a long way in preventing “issues” from arising later. An exercise called LabTrek helps participants practice leading teams in such activities as preparing protocols, developing grant proposals, preparing and managing projects and laboratory budgets, equipping a new laboratory, and choosing collaborators.

A growing number of institutions recognize that investing in educational programs that help make their researchers better managers also helps the managers better advance science, their careers and the reputations of the institutions. An increasingly important reason for investing in further professional development of researchers is that it helps mitigate institutional risk. As a result of LMI’s efforts to provide scientists with a more formative education in laboratory leadership and management, a curriculum has been developed that is organized into five categories (pillars): leadership; management; best practices; integrity; and health, safety and security (see box). Building these pillars of laboratory management upon a strong foundation of basic and scientific-discipline skills will lead to enhanced laboratory operations as well as breakthrough science and distinguished careers.

Best practices

From all this practicing, participants rediscover what they have known all along about doing science: Be fastidious about record keeping; be above reproach ethically; be good stewards of research resources; and never compromise the safety and security of personnel, research participants and subjects, or the environment. They also discover that playing nicely with others can be done scientifically

The overriding lesson from this curriculum is that handling issues in the laboratory requires the same skills as those for doing good science—make observations, then step back and observe not only the immediate facts of the situation that are presented, but also the emotions being expressed by the people involved and the underlying, possibly long-term, reasons behind those emotions. If the facts, emotions and concomitant variables are not fully revealed, as a scientist you need to ask questions until they are known. Essentially, you are building a database that will help you understand the problem better and devise solutions for it. After carefully reviewing the data, plan the best strategy to implement a solution, vet that plan with others you trust and then try it out. If that strategy does not work, try another or enlist others to help you resolve the issue. Usually, there is no single right strategy; rather, there are many that can work for the specific situation and people involved. The strategies that work tend to be the ones that are thought through thoroughly, consider not only short-term but also long-term consequences, and ring true for you.

While some issues will be easy to resolve, others will not and sometimes the end result will not, please everyone. What is important is that everyone involved understands why that particular solution was selected over others. Some other best practices rediscovered through this educational program are to value others and let them know that you do; communicate openly and often; be honest, be authentic; be transparent in your decision making; police yourself, not others; trust and be trusted. Sound familiar and simple? The best practices usually are.


Scientists not only must be innovative in their scientific discipline, but increasingly must be innovative in how they make greater use of dwindling resources, communicate their science to the public and to funding agencies that will sustain their research programs, and lessen the impact of their research activities on the environment. Therefore, investments in educational programs in laboratory management can pay high dividends.