Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Building a Strong Lab Culture

Choose the right people and help them grow

by Lina Genovesi
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The responsibilities of a lab manager are to lead and manage the lab in the midst of team dynamics. In a weak lab culture, team members have low productivity, are confused about their assignments, complain about other team members, and show a lack of involvement. 

In a strong lab culture, team members are productive and involved, have clarity about the goals of the lab, and have positive relationships with other team members. Because team dynamics define “lab culture,” building a strong lab culture starts with building the right team.

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Selecting team members

Building the right team begins with selecting the right team members. The right team members will have the skill set required, a personality that matches the core values of the company, and a desirable work ethic and will measure to the expectations of the lab.

“Motivation is an important work ethic,” says Mark Lloyd, staff scientist, analytic microscopy core at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute (Tampa, FL). “Individuals who are motivated and empowered to go above and beyond their duties contribute to a strong lab culture, which leads to a high retention rate.”

Josephine C. Longoria, regional lab director, Guadalupe- Blanco River Authority (Seguin, TX), believes that being committed is an important work ethic. “Showing commitment to the team by finishing what someone starts goes a long way in a team,” says Longoria.

Being a problem solver is another important work ethic. “That is what I call the hidden asset,” adds Longoria. “When someone is willing to try to solve a problem before bringing it to the attention of the lab manager, that has often been a reason to promote someone.”

The process of selecting team members is not static. As the team grows beyond the initial team members, the role of the team members and the required skill set might shift and expand. “You need to continue cultivating an understanding of the skill set needed for your team,” says Longoria. “If you want to hire a new team member, involve your existing team members in evaluating the candidate so that the new hire will fit into your existing team.”

Setting the tone

Team members will appreciate the goals of the lab if expectations are communicated to them at the outset, as expectations represent the collective belief system on which the lab is based and the information gathered from lab training over time, Longoria says.

One common approach is to articulate the lab expectations in a mission statement and to use it as a guiding principle in decision making.

“I am clear at the outset with my lab members that the mission statement of this lab is to contribute to the prevention of and cure for cancer,” says Lloyd.

However, as more team members are hired and the lab grows, the mission statement may require some adjustments. “You may need to involve your employees in fine-tuning the mission statement,” says Longoria. “Read it, refresh it, and reflect on it often.”

Expectations and a mission statement may provide the backbone. While some employees will be highly motivated regardless of how a lab manager acts, most employees will follow the lead of the lab manager, who sets the tone by his or her actions.

“A lab manager has to ‘walk the walk,’” says Lloyd. “I spend time in waiting rooms talking to patients. I spend time listening to MDs to learn what could make their jobs easier or more efficient. Then I bring this knowledge back to the lab, as does each of our members, and we share it.”

Setting an infrastructure

Team members function best within a well-defined infrastructure for ordering supplies and using the shared equipment and lab space. A well-defined infrastructure will cut down on conflicts among lab members.

“It is helpful for the lab to have a simple way of ordering supplies, to reduce cumbersome procedures when not required, to invite dialogue and solutions to try to solve a problem, and to have the attitude that two heads are better than one when solving a problem,” says Longoria.

Every team member should be encouraged to be responsible for keeping things organized and be responsible for their part. “Team members should own up to their process,” says Eric Collop, lab manager, quality control lab, Lifeline Foods (Saint Joseph, MO). “Each lab technician documents what goes on during a shift and communicates it to incoming technicians at the changeover.”

In today’s tough funding environment, asking team members to consider cost savings and effectiveness is also important to running a successful lab. “You should make everyone in the lab aware of the financial aspects of the lab,” Longoria says. “You should also encourage reduction of use of consumables, where possible.”

Solving problems

Promoting problem solving through teams with specific skills is a significant factor in defining the relationship dynamics between team members and setting the tone for a strong lab culture.

Successful problem solving is on a case-by case basis.

“The success of grouping individuals into teams depends on the issues that need to be resolved,” says Lloyd. “If there are scientific issues, then a team is formed that is diverse enough to bring multiple perspectives, while being cohesive enough so the team members work well together.”

The success of solving problems through teams also depends on the level of commitment of the team members to the team. “Team members may not want to commit,” says Longoria. “In some instances, forming teams may be something that team members reject if it takes too much time away from lab time.”

Promoting communication

Positive communication is an important factor to a well-functioning lab, and poor communication is indicative of a lack of commitment to the team.

“Promoting communication—verbal, email, text, phone, radio, and documentation—is key,” says Collop. “Team members who communicate well are those who work toward a single mission or vision and are motivated on their own to go beyond their duties.”

For Longoria, taking into account the diversity of team members’ cultural backgrounds is important in creating a positive, open environment for communication.

“To promote communication, you need to be accepting and welcoming of diversity, whether it is cultural, local, or external,” she says.

Promoting collaboration

Emphasizing the importance of each team member will go a long way in diffusing any ill will between team members. It will also make it easier for team members to collaborate as a group.

“If someone offers a suggestion or solution to something you have a problem with, refrain from putting someone down and/or one-upping someone,” Longoria says.

Emphasizing mutual respect between team members diffuses any perceived favoritism and promotes positive relationships and collaboration. “Lab members should listen to and respect their coworkers,” adds Longoria. “They should show patience, share knowledge, encourage cross training, and be accepting of different learning styles. They should also be constructive with criticism and always offer an alternative or a solution to a problem if you have to state the problem.”

Acknowledging contribution

When team members feel that the company is making a positive impact on the world, they will be empowered by the acknowledgment of their own contribution and impact on the company. For example, Lloyd is careful to highlight the contribution of his lab to the Cancer Center and the patients who are the top priorities.

“We emphasize that our work is not only about the basic science we perform but also about affecting patients and their experiences,” says Lloyd. “This builds a sense of involvement, which inspires lab members to excel.”

Encouraging growth

When team members are encouraged to grow in their roles, they will be empowered to work harder.

To encourage the growth of his team members, Lloyd acknowledges the contribution of each team member. “I provide lab members with a sense of ownership of their projects,” says Lloyd. “I also try to give the message that everyone is making a significant contribution to the research, regardless of their specific title or role.”

Lab managers can also help team members grow through opportunities for training and continued education, something Longoria feels is very important in her lab. “I encourage external training for specific analytical needs as well as professional development through webinars and other training,” she says. “I also encourage continued education by offering a partial tuition reimbursement program.”

Lloyd says that team members grow more effectively in the context of their own plans and ambitions. “It is important that you know their individual goals and help them achieve them rather than spend all your time pressing your goals on them,” adds Lloyd. “You may provide growth as a career ladder for some or a structured model for moving on for others.”

Encouraging work-life balance

Including fun and occasions for sharing in the life of the lab promotes work-life balance, which not only benefits team members but also boosts work productivity.

“Having fun and sharing occasions are important for our lab,” says Longoria. “We often have a lunch outside the lab with all the lab staff present. We also have companywide occasions to allow the staff to feel that they are also part of the bigger picture and the entire team.”

Likewise, putting an emphasis on community involvement promotes work-life balance.

“I encourage volunteer work under the company’s name,” says Longoria. “I also encourage personal involvement with other civic organizations and allow for time needed to complete volunteer work.”

Lloyd encourages community involvement on the job through interaction of team members with patients and their families. “We encourage interaction with patients through various volunteer programs or simply by walking the halls,” says Lloyd. “This builds a sense of involvement, which inspires lab members to excel.”

Showing appreciation

Team members want to feel appreciated and recognized for their hard work and contribution. Appreciation comes in the form of pay raises, bonuses, or public recognition.

For Longoria, public recognition includes nominating employees for external organizational awards, encouraging membership with associated organizations that promote their professional development, and announcing during meetings their small or large successes and accomplishments.

Appreciation may take other forms such as perks or incentive programs. “We reward results through company-sponsored lunches, tickets to sporting events, gift certificates, and an employee bonus plan,” says Collop.

There is a caveat when relying on perks or incentive programs. “Perks or incentive programs must have a meaning for the specific team member,” says Longoria. “Understanding the psychology of the team member is a must; otherwise, a good perk to one may be an insult to another.”

Bottom line

A strong lab culture is the result of a combination of factors such as nurturing the growth of each team member while requiring that person’s continued commitment and collaboration to the team. Achieving and maintaining this balance has certain benefits to the lab manager and the team members, such as positive relationships, business longevity, and growth.