Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Is Your Message Getting Lost in the Sauce?

Choosing and using the best communication channels for your team.

by F. Key Kidder
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During the past several years, the scientific community has been subjected to a campaign to improve communications with the external public. The drumbeat for enhanced engagement emanated from a range of interests. People working in industry, academia, and professional organizations as well as communication scholars and gurus all aggressively urged scientists to refine what they say and how they say it in dealings with global collaborators, citizens, funders, opinion leaders, and legislators— all to better improve relationships and outcomes.

Considerably less attention meanwhile has been paid to the efficacy of scientists’ internal communications. Conversations and exchanges within labs are “relatively neglected compared with external communications in the context of the current science communication push,” said Chris Mooney, a journalist and academic who works in the intersection of science, communication, and politics.

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Close proximity can create assumptions that mislead lab managers into a state of communicative complacency—the false sense of security that they are indeed getting the intended message across to staff and superiors. “The first principle of communication,” said consultant and scholar Philip Clampitt, “is ‘message sent’ often does not equal ‘message received.’”

Scientists “believe it’s all taken care of,” said author and consultant Dennis Meredith, “because they pass each other in the hall, confer on a particular experiment occasionally, or have journal clubs and those kinds of meetings. But that’s not the case.”

As a result, levels of staff performance, motivation, and trust are less than optimal. And then there’s the issue of choosing the most appropriate channel for the situation at hand, another potential source of miscommunication gaffes. Under what circumstances are different techniques adverse or desirable? What’s best—one-onone or face-to-face meetings; telephone or email and social media communiques; or group meetings?

Bench scientists typically receive scant formal training in the communication arts, according to a study by John Besley from the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Only one in five communication experts reported conducting such training, and when it did occur, engagement was a secondary focus. Numerous other studies hammer home the paradigm of the communicatively challenged scientist who prefers to be left alone to pursue research. Science and engineering, said Meredith, are “professions that have not valued explanation.”

The starting point for an understanding of the best internal communication practices—and the drivers of motivation, group performance, and trust—is contained in the body of research into psychosocial behaviors, augmented by more recent works from communication specialists who have taken up the cause of science.

A synopsis might begin with the handful of classic theorists who lay the foundations of motivational workplace orthodoxy. Maslow, Hertzberg, Deming, Vroom giants all, and all of whom prescribed (in varying degrees) that management emphasize intrinsic motivators and psychological incentives and reduce reliance on extrinsic payoffs such as cash and perks. A recent McKinsey Quarterly report underscored the value of managerial recognition and attention as a recurring theme in motivational effectiveness surveys. “We’ve known how to motivate workers for a while,” said Roger Mayer from N.C. State’s Poole College of Management. “It depends on how dedicated organizations are to revisiting what works.”

When evaluating internal communication modes in the context of motivation and trust, it is increasingly apparent that what works best is face time and meetings with managers either one-on-one or in small groups. Larger group discussions tend to be dominated by several individuals and inhibit participation.

“Teaching, training, managing conflict and analyzing difficult problems are best handled” via face-to-face communication, said Dr. Philip Clampitt, author of “Communicating for Managerial Effectiveness” (Sage Publications) and founder of a communications consulting firm whose roster of clients is dotted with scientists and engineers.

Telephones, email, and social technology modalities have their rightful place in labs as a quick and easy means of conveying and/or broadcasting information, but managers who use these methods to the point of minimizing or excluding real-time person-to-person communication on a reasonably consistent basis should not be surprised if levels of staff motivation and trust start to flag.

When processing communications, humans rely on visual cues and social context to provide clarity and meaning, said Patricia Holahan, associate professor of management at Stevens Institute of Technology, who specializes in technology management and organizational design and theory.

Communications that are both rich and synchronous—those that transmit information with the greatest clarity and timeliness such as face-to-face— provide “superior social context and cues” that reduce uncertainty (i.e., increase trust) and strengthen interpersonal bonds—the kind of cohesion that is essential in order for managers to transition into leaders.

Text-driven communications such as social technologies and email—even telephones to a lesser extent—are leaner and more asynchronous. “Without rich contextual information, the default position is to make dispositional attributions, and they tend to be negative,” said Holahan. The risk is twofold. Not only can the message not come across as intended, but it can also sow the seeds of interpersonal conflict between a sender and receiver, discord that can infect others. (As team members become better acquainted over time, the threat diminishes.)

Trust was shown to be a prerequisite for managerial effectiveness as early as 1960. Subsequent studies demonstrated the primary role communication plays in the development and maintenance of trust and employee involvement. But despite the premium placed on trust, there was “scarce empirical evidence” about how to develop its organizational robustness, according to a 2009 study in the Journal of Business Communication that focused on the communication interplay between top management, middle management, and staff (“The Central Role of Communication in Developing Trust” by Thomas, Zolin and Hartman, Sage Publications).

The study found that the quantity or adequacy of “big picture” information stemming from top management is more important than quality for developing staff trust. Middle managers in turn must be trusted to translate this generalized, big-picture material into high-quality information that is staff-specific and shows workers where they fit into the organizational scheme of things. “When (staff) perceive they are getting information from their supervisors and coworkers that is timely, accurate, and relevant, they are more likely to feel less vulnerable and more able to rely” on supervisors and colleagues.

The second element of communication the study tested for was organizational openness, “which predicts an employee’s involvement” and motivation. Trust, say the authors, “appears to shape the perceptions of communication openness” that drive involvement. When staff is made to feel less vulnerable and can express themselves safely, it increases their buy-in.

Clampitt is more sanguine about the state of scientific communication than are other experts— taciturn scientists and engineers may in fact have an inherent advantage when it comes to developing good communication skills, he says. The gift of gab is counterproductive. “Talk-listen-talk-listen trumps talk-talk-talk every time. Scientists are keenly aware that ‘saying something is so’ differs from ‘proving it is so.’ Unlike others, scientists are more inclined to solicit feedback (that the message was successfully communicated and received). So they test, simply by asking, to obtain the necessary proof.”

Channels, said Clampitt, “accentuate certain attributes of the message, while de-emphasizing others.” Most people “overuse” channels that “best suit our skills and comfort level,” but Clampitt recommends expanding the portfolio to include different channels more attuned to the preferences of others. Using an array “increases the probability of tapping into the full potential” of staff.

Clampitt advises establishing sets of protocols for use as the basis of an internal communications system. He distinguishes between three basic communication situations—routine information sharing, knowledge sharing, and change management—and says managers and staff should mutually agree on which channels (email, phone, etc.) are most appropriate for each situation.

“What’s routine can often be done via email or memo but sometimes must be supplemented by richer channels, because something perceived as routine by one person isn’t necessarily perceived that way by another. If it’s not clear to start with, use richer knowledge sharing channels—it’s especially good for scientists to create connections where they see other people’s work.”

Change management, the most challenging communication situation, often puts lab managers in the tricky position of having to act as the middlemen between staff and superiors. In this event, Clampitt advises managers to address his seven specified protocols, the better to optimize the message’s impact on staff: what is the decision?; how was it made?; why was it made?; what were the rejected alternatives?; how does the decision fit into the mission or vision?; how does the decision effect the organization?; and how does the decision effect employees?

“When staff is informed of all seven, we discovered it doubles the likelihood of a buy-in. Even if a manager cannot explain the rationale directly, it provides more certainty and predictive ability.”

Clampitt’s findings are complemented by the research of Ethan Burris, associate professor of management at the University of Texas, McCombs School of Business. Employee “voice,” says Burris—the degree to which staff are encouraged or allowed to speak up and share ideas—drives higher levels of (in descending order) their self-perceived status, proactive personality, job satisfaction and work group acceptance, procedural justice, and fit with supervisor.

Meredith, whose Explaining Research site offers a generous wealth of advice on a range of scientific communication issues, suggests technological and architectural steps to improve internal communication.

Technology tools can increase performance and offer team-building potential. Meredith recommends private Twitter feeds as a means to crowdsource solutions to the daily vexations of lab life—things like machine glitches and troublesome analytic techniques. An internal blog allows researchers to post their progress or circulate drafts inviting feedback, because “the more editorial eyes you put on piece, the better it becomes.” SlideBoom allows users to share rich PowerPoints and even add audio; Meredith envisions it as a useful tool for scientists to circulate their presentations among lab staff, perhaps seeking advice to resolve sticking points.

Public communications can be improved “in ways that increase group trust and cohesiveness,” says Meredith. Lab websites often display “perfunctory biographical sketches.” Allowing staff to include personal data about their interests can kindle friendships with “someone right down the hallway who also enjoys scuba diving.” Such informal discussions can “develop into more cohesive professional relationships.”

As a practical matter, configuring lab space is often outside the purview of lab managers. Among the many labs Meredith has visited, several had memorable coffee rooms and common areas with comfortable accommodations conducive to informal discussions that promote interpersonal relationships and teamwork. At Duke’s multidisciplinary Levine Science Research Center, slow elevators cause people to take the stairs. “Landings were turned into large, sunny alcoves with couches and easy chairs where scientists like to strike up conversations.”

A 2004 MIT Sloan Management Review white paper (“How Team Communication Affects Innovation” by Kratzer, Leenders, and Engelen) posits that the extent of small group communication “makes a big difference in their creativity.” Frequency affects output; one to three times a week is the optimal number of communication episodes. More extensive communication, either face-toface or by other means, results in cliques and a “group think mentality that stifles innovation.” The longer a team stays together, the more likely cliques are to coalesce, so rotating team assignments is recommended.