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How Leaders Can Guide Their Staff through Unexpected Challenges

How Leaders Can Guide Their Staff through Unexpected Challenges

There are a number of things we can do and behaviors we can exhibit to reduce the impact of uncertainty on us, our people, and our labs

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Leading through uncertainty isn’t new. Despite the chaos introduced by the novel coronavirus and the response (and lack of response) to it, lab managers have been dealing with uncertainty all of our careers. Uncertainty comes in many flavors and reaches out to us from our personal lives, our work lives, and our community. Especially for scientists used to reducing measurement uncertainty in experiments, dealing with the uncertainties of science can be easy compared to addressing the uncertainties of health, economics, politics, and human relationships. While there always seems to be some level of uncertainty, there are things we can do and behaviors we can exhibit to reduce the impact of uncertainty on us, our people, and our labs.

Planning for the unexpected

General (and later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” The point of this quote is that we cannot accurately predict all aspects of a situation; the more significant the uncertainty, the less accurate the resulting plan. However, all of the work, effort, and insight gained in the planning process enables us to react appropriately to the uncertainties as we encounter them. It also teaches us that plans will not age well. We need to revisit our plans to ensure that the planning process is up to date, and our thoughts and learnings are current and viable. Building plans to help us address different kinds of uncertainties will really generate benefits when that kind of thinking is needed. Some plans that lab managers need to consider include:

  • Succession planning for roles and positions in the lab: Guides who would be able to step in when needed. Also, guides the training and development of staff to enable them to prepare for these future roles.
  • Coverage planning for who can do what: Guides who is prepared to deliver different kinds of lab work. If the coverage plan has significant gaps, this plan can also guide future training and cross-training efforts.
  • Business continuity planning for the functions of the lab in case those functions are interrupted: Guides where to seek help and support outside the lab in case of emergency.
  • Alternate work planning for different ways for the lab staff to complete their roles and responsibilities, in case the lab itself is unavailable. The current pandemic is a good example of the need for alternate work plans. Most labs probably wish they’d done some planning for alternate work options prior to March 2020.
  • Sales planning to ensure financial support in case current support (internal or external) is interrupted unexpectedly: Guides thinking to where replacement or additional financial support might originate when needed.
  • Financial planning to ensure we understand our costs, both fixed and variable: Guides thinking about the priority of spending when revenue is interrupted. Help when difficult decisions regarding spending are required.

One of the key outcomes of effective planning is the ability of the lab to be agile and flexible. The planning process provides us with the background, possibilities, and choices that we can use to address the issues uncertainty poses. By sharing the planning process, we also share the learnings from the planning with our lab staff. This will help them address the uncertainties important in their roles, and help them address any uncertainty regarding our position as the lab manager.

Behaviors that help to cope with uncertainty

As lab managers, we can help the people around us deal with the vagaries of uncertainty by the way we behave around the lab. We need to remember that the whole staff is watching us to see how we respond to uncertainty. They will take their cues from us. If we want staff to weather the uncertainty storms, we need to lead by example. Below are some behaviors that are especially needed in uncertain times.

Listen

Active listening is always a valuable skill for lab managers, but it is especially important in uncertain times. Really listening to staff, understanding their worries and concerns, and getting ideas to help address the challenges can be vital to navigating uncertain times. It’s a good idea to go to staff and listen to them in the labs and at the benches. Making staff more comfortable is a good start to really hearing them. Adding a little MBWA (management by walking around) to your day can prove highly valuable.

Show compassion

Uncertain times impact everyone in the lab. The degree of impact is often very individual and specific to the person. Making the extra effort to show compassion enables lab managers to build relationships, trust, and respect. Making compassion part of your leadership habit demonstrates your willingness to be a people-first leader. It is very important to staff to know that their leaders are thinking of them and willing to listen to their problems, and are sharing the experiences of uncertainty with them.

Be positive

Uncertain times bring all manner of reactions from different people. Lab staff will tend to take their cues from the lab manager. If the lab manager emotes fear, anxiety, and rides an emotional rollercoaster during times of uncertainty, the lab staff is likely to mimic that behavior. As lab managers, we can ease the concerns of staff by remaining calm, finding positive events to celebrate, thanking people for their contributions, and being optimistic about outcomes. This doesn’t mean to ignore the issues and take a Pollyanna approach, but to embrace a positive approach to solving the issue facing the lab. That positive approach will be copied by staff, which improves the probability of a positive outcome.

Be decisive

The whole experience of leading through uncertainty is that different aspects of the environment lack definition, are complex, are vague, and/or are volatile. However, lab managers can’t refrain from decision making just because the environment around the lab is uncertain. The lab, the staff, and the stakeholders are still dependent on effective decisions from the lab manager. Difficult decisions will become even more difficult during times of uncertainty, but still need to be made. Lab managers can communicate more often, more clearly, and ask for help earlier to enable decisions to still flow. It may be even more important to clearly articulate the assumptions on which decisions are based, so that as things evolve, the decisions can be efficiently reviewed to discover if key assumptions have changed.

Demonstrate purpose

During uncertain times, there are many different things that can distract the lab staff from their purpose. Communicating and reinforcing the shared purpose of the lab is an effective way to keep people focused on the mission. Having a clear, shared purpose also enables staff to stay engaged and stay focused despite all of the issues surrounding the lab due to uncertainty.

Overcommunicate

Even in the best of times, lab managers must repeat key messages to generate a clear understanding among staff. During times of uncertainty, lab managers must communicate even more. It may be important to break key messages into smaller packages, and to use more varied communication media to ensure the key bits are communicated to staff. When staff are distracted by uncertainty, it is important to keep repeating the key messages and to let go of the frustration and irritation that often comes with the need to constantly repeat yourself.

Help yourself before helping others

Times of uncertainty bring additional stress and pressure to an already full plate for most lab managers. To be there for staff, it is vital that lab managers remember to take care of themselves, too. This might look like taking a few minutes to reflect on your own challenges, to think about the impact of the uncertainty on the lab, and to generate new ideas to try to make things better. It’s important to remember the guidance of the stewards and stewardesses on airline flights who remind us to put our own oxygen mask on first, and then help those around us. If the difficulty of the situation causes us to lose function, we can’t help our staff address the challenges.

Key takeaways

Times of uncertainty add to the already full leadership plate for most lab managers. Lab managers can increase their agility and flexibility in the face of uncertainty with effective planning. That planning prepares us to think faster and consider different options. Lab managers also need to recognize the stress that uncertainty puts on staff. Leadership behaviors such as active listening, showing compassion, exuding positivity, demonstrating purpose, and being decisive can enable lab managers to better help their staff through the difficult times. While much of our focus remains on the lab, the staff, and the stakeholders, lab managers still need to take a little time to take care of themselves. Lab managers must take enough care of themselves, so that they can continue to care for others.

Some helpful resources on leading through uncertainty:

  1. https://www.forbes.com/sites/margiewarrell/2020/03/08/leading-through-coronavirus-how-those-in-charge-can-navigate-the-uncertainty-with-calm--courage/#d0dddf704bf5 
  2. Deanna Foster, March 12, 2020, https://www.harvardbusiness.org/leading-through-uncertainty/ 
  3. Center for Positive Organizations, https://positiveorgs.bus.umich.edu/thriving-in-trying-times/connections/