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Improving Operations through Effective Lab Leadership

People are at the core of any organization's success

by Donna Kridelbaugh
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What makes an effective lab leader? While business smarts and technical expertise are operationally important, the most effective leaders are clear communicators who first and foremost value people and their individual contributions to team efforts. These leaders understand that the basis for organizational success is to treat people right. 

Lab managers can learn to be more effective leaders by striving for an inclusive leadership style, keeping open lines of communications, and providing effective mentoring support. These leadership qualities promote maximal employee engagement, which in turn enhances job performance and overall lab productivity. 

Striving for an inclusive leadership style

An inclusive work environment is ranked as a top priority by employees. Everyone wants to feel a sense of belonging where their unique contributions are valued, they are trusted to do good work, and they have a voice in the direction of organizational priorities. Thus, a culture of inclusion can be characterized by respect, independence, and authenticity. Inclusion leads to highly functioning teams and a more productive workplace.

How can managers work toward leading in a more inclusive way? It starts with careful introspection. One consideration is to reflect upon how one’s management style impacts team relations. As an example, exhibiting micromanaging and controlling tendencies can be antithetical to lab productivity. It creates distrust and self-doubt among team members, which can quickly result in disengagement and even withdrawal.

It also is imperative to identify any implicit (or unconscious) biases against other group identities that may negatively affect one’s ability to treat employees fairly. Organizations can build in mechanisms and processes to interrupt these biases, especially within the context of making workforce decisions. For example redacting application materials to remove identifying information during the hiring process and applying consistent evaluation criteria during performance appraisals can be effective techniques.  

Lab managers can then lead outwardly to demonstrate inclusive behaviors in their everyday interactions with team members. These behaviors include showing one’s authentic self, having humility to admit one’s own mistakes, and always being open to feedback from employees to improve upon management actions in the future. Employees want to feel like their manager is part of the team.

Inclusiveness also means that lab leadership understands their primary role is to set the strategy for organizational goals, connect employees to any needed resources, and ultimately hold staff accountable for implementing a plan to get there. This autonomy also encourages innovation, but only when employees are provided a safety net in an environment where they are not afraid to make mistakes. By emboldening employees to find their own solutions, the lab also will continuously improve upon its operations. 

Keeping open lines of communication

Many workplace issues are related to a breakdown in communications. By maintaining open lines of communication, lab managers can ensure team members are working toward a shared vision, provided a platform to share concerns, and properly asked for input during any decision-making processes. Lab managers can keep open lines of communication by first being available, such as adopting an open-door policy, along with scheduling regular check-ins and following through on any information requests. 

One critical area that requires careful communications is change management. Lab managers have a responsibility to gather employee input on any proposed operational and organizational changes, fostering a sense of group ownership for implementation. As such, it is imperative to directly acknowledge input when it is received and demonstrate how that feedback was considered during the change process. 

Leadership can take advantage of a wide of range of communication tools to effectively disseminate information to team members and improve transparency in organizational decisions. One resource is the development of an internal communications plan that sets clear guidelines on how and when to communicate, what tools are available, and accommodate differing communication styles and needs. The plan may include ground rules for group discussions to help navigate difficult conversations. 

Another effective communication tool is a well-maintained internal team website that includes help guides and other employee resources, a shared group calendar, and archived meeting materials (e.g., meeting minutes, presentation slides). Lab managers can further promote team cohesion and idea exchange by finding ways for staff to discuss their science in a more informal setting, too. Potential ways to do so include impromptu coffee breaks, moderating online chats around topical discussions, or hosting an in-house research symposium across the organization. 

Additionally, it is advantageous to take the time to promote staff accomplishments through various communication channels both within and outside the organization. Examples of promotions may include announcements of employee awards in internal newsletters, featured profile articles on external websites, and science highlights shared with major funders. These efforts signal to employees that their unique contributions are appreciated, while also showcasing the talent and expertise of the organization.

Providing effective mentoring support

An effective mentoring relationship is another primary indicator for employee success and leads to increased lab productivity, job satisfaction, and quality science outputs. A mentor’s role is to provide direction on what competencies and skills are required for selected career paths, connect lab members with the resources they need to be successful in these roles, and offer regular and constructive feedback along the way. 

One useful mentoring tool is an individual development plan (IDP) that identifies a mentee’s short- and long-term career goals, outlines trainings and other experiences needed to meet those goals, and tracks progress over time. This document also serves as a communications guide for career advancement discussions and should be collaboratively developed between the supervisor and employee. 

Additionally, an IDP is tailored to the employee’s skills, interests, and values, builds upon his or her strengths, and identifies areas of improvement where necessary to advance in the selected career path. In terms of inclusion, pinpointing strengths during this process also creates a stronger sense of belongingness when employees realize what they uniquely contribute to the team and are recognized for these efforts.

A critical component of the IDP is a customized training plan, which further promotes a model of continuous learning in the workplace. Various formal (e.g., short courses, degree programs) and informal (e.g., webinars, readings) trainings can be incorporated into the plan to help lab members meet learning objectives and career goals. Such a personalized and competency-based training approach will also allow employees to advance at their own pace, keep them engaged, and professionally fulfilled. 

It is also important to note that mentoring may need to take a team-based approach to provide an individualized experience, depending on the employee’s professional development goals. This approach can include participation in peer-mentoring groups, incorporating components of cross-training efforts (e.g., lab rotations), and providing external opportunities (e.g., externships) that can provide exposure to the desired skill sets and expertise offered by other team members and collaborators. 

In summary, people are an organization’s most valuable resource and deserve to work in a welcoming environment where they feel valued and respected, are provided clear expectations through honest and open communications, and can grow professionally. Through modeling inclusive behaviors, maintaining open communications, and providing professional development support, lab managers can help staff excel in their individual career paths, which also pays dividends in improved lab operations.