When Dr. Linette Watkins was an undergraduate working at a campus library, a professor who recognized her potential convinced her to work in the chemistry department instead. As Watkins grew into her responsibilities as a teaching and stockroom assistant, the encouragement continued. “Dr. Nancy Mills began talking to me about the options in chemistry and began calling me Dr. Watkins. This small gesture totally changed how I looked at myself and my potential in chemistry.”
Now, as a research professor with her own lab and the department head of biochemistry at James Madison University (Harrisonburg, VA), Watkins credits those interactions from her undergraduate mentor for launching her career trajectory. “Dr. Mills also made sure that I was placed in a research lab and that changed everything.”
A universal goal for any lab environment is to motivate team members and bring out the best in them. As a lab manager and mentor, one strategy I use to accomplish this is to recognize members of my team for their individual strengths and provide appropriate opportunities for them to capitalize on those talents. This is particularly important when I’m assigning a new project or creating a focused sub-team within my lab to pursue a specific research objective. Knowing who excels under tight deadlines, for example, or who quickly becomes impatient with experiments that require incremental changes to optimize the results helps me match the right person with a task. But guiding an appropriate project to a researcher’s bench does more than simply increase the odds that they will accomplish an objective by the target date. It also makes a powerful impact on the lab’s culture by reinforcing that each person, not just their raw output, contributes to the lab’s success.
When I discuss a new project or task with a researcher, I share why I believe that they will succeed. I’ve learned that when a lab member understands that I haven’t made a random decision based on how close their bench is to my office, but one that is based on my confidence in their skill set or potential, they are more likely to take ownership of a project.
There are additional benefits, too. When someone feels that both their talent and their contributions are valued, they are more likely to take the lead in areas of self-management, openly share ideas to streamline lab-wide workflow routines, and offer solutions to problems—including ones that aren’t their official responsibility.
Ensuring that you’re distributing your employees’ talent appropriately is an ongoing process, but it doesn’t always need to be a time consuming or overly complicated one. For instance, shortly before a new hire starts, if you have access to it, review their CV or resume to remind yourself of why they were hired and take note of their areas of expertise. You know they have the minimum requirements for the position, but what made this candidate special? Maybe they have more experience with a specific technique or process than current team members. Or they might be a pro at public speaking, making them the ideal candidate to represent the lab at an upcoming conference. When reviewing a resume, your ultimate goal is to match a new hire’s skill set with projects that they are most likely to connect with, and therefore excel in, from the start of their appointment.
It’s also important to regularly evaluate if the strengths of any existing employees are underutilized within your group. When you’re completing a performance review, for example, you’re likely to recall an employee’s most noteworthy accomplishments since the last evaluation. You might realize that they would be an asset to a project that they aren’t currently working on, or that they have emerging potential and would benefit from attending a professional development workshop to cultivate it.
Another source of untapped potential are employees who demonstrate their motivation to contribute beyond their immediate responsibilities, but for whatever reason, haven’t had many official opportunities to do so. It’s easiest to discover these employees’ hidden strengths in labs where the ingrained culture is to give credit where it’s due and staff members openly share their appreciation for their coworkers’ contributions. You might not be physically in the lab much, but if you’re paying attention, you will recognize patterns of whose name comes up as the “go-to” person for technical help, who routinely offers insight on data interpretation, or who consistently generates novel ideas for experiments.
Learning about the talents that your employees don’t necessarily list on their resume or have the opportunity to showcase while in the lab can also help uncover unknown, and therefore, under-appreciated skills. However, rather than investigating someone’s social media channels or asking intrusive, personal questions (both of which supervisors should refrain from doing), create an environment where employees who wish to volunteer some details of their after-work life feel comfortable doing so.
I’ve facilitated this in our lab for years, in part by scheduling the occasional low-key social gathering during regular work hours. Typically, I order in snacks for everyone and sometimes a lab member or two will also bring something to share with the group. Setting aside an hour or so each month for casual conversation helps lab members become a lab team. But it also gives me a convenient opportunity to connect with lab members on a personal level and for them to get to know me a little better, too.
“Laboratory workers ultimately tend to form a family-like atmosphere,” says Gina MacDonald, professor of biophysics and biochemistry at James Madison University. “Informal dinners and lunches build community and friendship.” And as most long-term lab managers can attest, employees are more likely to share tidbits about their hobbies and life experiences with coworkers when they feel a social connection. So, over a cup of coffee or bagel, an employee might tell you about a side hustle that involves science communication and you’ll recognize that they are the ideal person to contribute to a press release about your lab’s research breakthrough or help out when a report needs to be written in accessible language.
Regardless of when or how you consider the individual strengths of your employees, take a moment to ask yourself two questions: “Could this employee’s strengths be better utilized within my group?” and “With some additional mentoring or encouragement, will this employee excel beyond their current level of success?” If the answer is yes to either, the next step is to take action. However, even after you’ve identified an underutilized skill set or potential in an employee, sometimes the next challenge isn’t so much about connecting them to additional responsibilities or opportunities, but convincing the staff member that they have more to contribute than they realize. “This is one of the hardest parts of the job,” says Amy Burgin, an associate professor and associate scientist at the University of Kansas and Kansas Biological Survey. “So much of the underused talent comes down to fear; fear of failure, judgement, or disappointment. So, I try to head that off and tell [my lab team] that they will likely mess up or do something wrong during their time.” As a principal investigator and mentor herself, Burgin also knows first-hand that words of encouragement aren’t always enough to restore confidence in those wrestling with self-doubt or imposter syndrome. She adds, “I also tell them stories about how I messed up as an undergrad/grad student/current professor, so that they realize there is failure at every stage in the process.”
Sometimes, coaxing the best out of a staff member means reinforcing that perseverance is a talent that can be developed if there is a willingness to put forth the effort. Burgin underscores this in her lab by asking the experienced members of her research team to share the stories behind their success. “We have people in our group who become ‘known’ for doing certain things really well, which is pretty common,” she says. “Asking the person to break down the process of attaining that skill helps others see it not as an inherent magical property or something one is ‘born with,’ but rather something you can learn if you want to.”
Effectively utilizing your employees’ strengths motivates your team to produce quality output for clients, meet productivity target dates, and maintain a positive work culture. It might require a little extra effort every so often, but the payoff is worth it.