Leadership and Staffing

Creating a Positive Culture in the Laboratory

Creating a Positive Culture in the Laboratory

Learn to use behavioral strengths to lead, motivate, and succeed

It is an interesting time to be a lab manager. While the old adage of change never having before occurred at such a fast rate is often claimed, this time it is true: none of us in our lifetimes (unless we lived through the Great Depression) have ever seen a situation similar to that of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a time of anxiety—or is it a time of opportunity? The COVID-19 pandemic offers each and every one of us an opportunity to re-evaluate the culture of our business.

Yet, crisis is not the only time to reimagine your lab. Rethinking a lab—retooling, refocusing, changing from the “same old-same old”— is always appropriate whenever there is a sense that things could be better. And if you do not believe that things could be improved, it may be time to look elsewhere.

So, what is culture?

Dictionaries, blogs, and consultant reports abound with definitions of culture. They have some connection to mission, vision, and values. You’ll see reference to goals and expectations, ethics, engagement, corporate environment, and the like. They often discuss pride and passion, leaders modeling the way, and working with consultants to identify your culture. Many will differentiate between a strong and a weak culture. The reality: the longer the definition, the less valuable it is likely to be to the practicing manager.

We learned the best description of culture 40 years ago, have tested it numerous times, and never found a more useful definition: Culture is the way we do things around here.

Employees identify with this, entry level managers, having just come through the ranks understand it, and—executives often forget it. The people at the bottom understand the talent management system, where favoritism exists, who gets paid or promoted, who gets vacation time, who is silenced, etc. They understand what it takes to get an afternoon off, to be challenged by the choice tasks, to receive a special perk. Employees see culture in action on a daily basis. Corporate leadership cannot legislate it by rules or long-winded statements; it is there for everyone to experience.

We know that corporate culture requires your active involvement, and your ongoing attention. We know the old cliché: “workers don’t leave their jobs; they leave their managers.” We have an opportunity to reimagine our lab culture today; to make it a high-performance culture.

A high-performance lab culture is what you and your people say it is. A positive lab culture allows your employees to grow and improve, to serve your clients in the ways they need, and to produce profit, or, if in a not-for-profit organization (public or private), allows you to benefit your stakeholders in an effective and efficient manner.

Solutions for the 21st century lab: Understand your people and their needs

Culture begins with your people, and with your interactions with them. Today, more than ever, it is vitally important to know your people, understand what drives them, what motivates them, and what stifles them. We have used the DiSC© Behavioral Assessment for more than 20 years to help us gain insight into behavior of individuals, leaders, and teams. Unlike personality assessments, DiSC© allows people to change their behaviors; it encourages managers to change how they manage their team to focus on each other’s strengths, while staying away from behaviors that would stifle their subordinates.

Here’s how it works:

Figure 1

The most obvious starting point is to conduct a validated DiSC© assessment on your staff. Lacking the ability to do that, ask the following questions. For each person, ask if that individual is more active/fast-paced/assertive, or more thoughtful/methodical/calm; place the person above or below the horizontal line in figure 1. Then ask if the individual is more logical/objective/skeptical or more accepting/people-focused/empathizing; place the individual to the right or left of the vertical line. You have now placed that person in one of the four DiSC© quadrants, D, i, S, C.

Do this mini assessment on yourself first to give you some practice, as well as crucial understanding about yourself. See where you fit in the model, and assess the accuracy. While this perspective focuses on four pure styles (dominance, influence, steadiness, conscientiousness), you will find that you, and most people, are some combination of the styles. The key to identifying where you truly fit in these quadrants is to see what gives you energy (your true style), and what drains you (you may be effective here, but you are not at your best). Who are you? Are you the driving dominator, the enthusiastic cheerleader, the concerned mediator, or the objective analyst? Might you be a chameleon? Your style helps determine what you do to establish the culture of your lab; the style of those around you helps determine the resulting culture. Most importantly, seeing the style of others helps you determine what you need to do differently; they will not change to meet you. To develop an effective culture, you must work within their style.

By now you should have some thoughts about each of the key people in your lab. Where you change your style to respond to theirs, you are likely to be more effective. If you do this across the board, you can now have a positive impact on culture. Use figure 1 as a guide to working with your associates. While you cannot always meet these standards, understanding individual differences will enable you to help more of your associates perform at a higher level of efficiency.

Person-building in 2020 and beyond

Many effective labs have succeeded by participating in teambuilding activities at some time. In 2020, however, we are discovering that it is time to move beyond teambuilding; it is time for person-building.

Individual differences are exacerbated today. They have always existed, but many managers ignored them, trying to fit all employees into a “one size fits all.” However, today:

  • Some employees choose to work at home; some are told to work at home
  • Some employees have loved ones who have contracted COVID; some fear that loved ones may contract COVID
  • Some employees have severe financial difficulties, or have loved ones with financial difficulties
  • Employees are homeschooling children
  • First-timers working from home do not understand how to be effective at home
  • Veteran telecommuters suddenly discover that their previously quiet home is now overrun with partner, kids, dogs and cats, food needs, schooling, and a myriad of other distractions

Related Article: Creating a Positive Lab Culture


Your first task is one of analysis. What do you know about each individual from the one, two, five, 10, etc. years of working with them? Next, connect this knowledge with their expected DiSC style. Now you get to the difficult part: how has this person’s life changed in the age of COVID-19? Or, more importantly, when COVID-19 gets under control, determine what else is happening in this person’s life. Now is the time to begin person-building.

For the better part of this century, we have heard managers ask their telecommuting employees what they are doing. Consultants have designed elaborate systems to have employees keep track of their days, and describe each task undertaken and accomplished. We’ve known one company that has used the lawyer system of recordkeeping in 10-minute increments, but they have it all wrong.

Ask workers how they’re doing. If you permit them to work from home, you have shown your faith in them. You are implicitly saying “I trust you.” Asking what they are doing negates that trust. Yes, you will have meetings, Zoom or otherwise, which require them to be somewhere at a specified time. However, if the sun comes out at 3:30 pm for the first time in a week and the kids want to play, nothing should stop that. In fact, that playtime, and your encouragement of it, will give you a better employee when the work begins anew at 8:00 pm that night.

What happens when you ask workers how they are doing, and how should you do it? First, never pry. If it becomes clear that your worker views this as an unwelcome intrusion into their life, immediately focus on direct job-related issues. If the worker does want to talk, or has a personal problem that has just come up, now is the time to listen. Active listening involves being attentive, occasionally paraphrasing or asking a relevant question, allowing the individual to merely talk. Most important: do not offer solutions unless asked. Active listening also means allowing the speaker to control the nature of the conversation. While this process may seem needlessly time consuming, especially to a High D or a High C, the value provided to that person is enormous.

“How are you doing? Would you like to chat before we get down to business?” “What can I do to help you do your job?” “How do our Zoom meetings impact you; are you okay with the lack of daily interaction at the office?” When in doubt, overcommunicate. Today’s high-performance lab culture demands this.

Your lab has critically changed with COVID-19, and provides insight for how we should act today, tomorrow, and into the future. Your employees are your culture; you can choose how you impact them. It is not the lab you grew up with.