Leadership and Staffing

What Makes a Great Leader for the Lab: 12 Leadership Qualities of Effective Laboratory Managers

What Makes a Great Leader for the Lab: 12 Leadership Qualities of Effective Laboratory Managers

How to improve leadership skills that lead to better lab performance

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Being a good lab manager is difficult. The role requires a variety of skills, knowledge, and behaviors. Most of us became lab managers after demonstrating some success as scientists in the lab. While we have the scientific and technical skills required to be effective lab managers, most of us have to rely on our experiences to develop the leadership and management skills required for the role.

Many of the most significant challenges we face as lab managers come from people interactions, not the science we were well-trained to execute. To help address the challenges posed by these people leadership tasks, we will discuss 12 important behaviors to help lab managers:

  1. Caring leadership
  2. Active listening
  3. Promoting safety
  4. Being vulnerable
  5. Ask for help
  6. Establish business purpose
  7. Demonstrate grit: passion and perseverance
  8. Willing to give freely
  9. Independence through rebel talent
  10. Decision making
  11. Having a growth mindset
  12. Enabling employee development

Why leadership matters

Why are effective lab managers valuable to organizations? There are many reasons, but one of the most important is the impact they have on the workplace culture and morale of the rest of the staff. Effective leaders create workplaces that enable staff to be more engaged and to thrive at work. Engaged workers clearly perform better and generate more positive business results than average workers.

These data support the business case for improved leadership behaviors from lab managers:1

  • Engaged employees deliver 70 percent fewer safety incidents
  • Engaged employees deliver 147 percent higher earnings per share
  • Engaged employees deliver 21 percent greater profitability
  • Engaged employees are 31 percent more productive
  • Engaged employees are 87 percent more likely to stay

So, how do effective lab managers behave to generate these kinds of business results? Peter Drucker, management guru, once said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” If we consistently do the right things, we can achieve these kinds of successes. The 12 tips below aim to guide lab managers to the behaviors or attitudes that will help promote productivity in the lab.

12 Leadership Behaviors to Make Big Differences

1. Caring Leadership

Teddy Roosevelt said, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Staff can clearly see what and who we care about as leaders from our actions and words. Our people pay close attention to the things we care about, and the things we don’t.2 People are reciprocal, caring about them enables them to care more about us, our work, our business, and our customers and stakeholders. The absence of caring about our people, their work, and their lives will result in a wide array of problems for the lab.

2. Active Listening

Effective lab managers tend to be good communicators. The single most important communication skill is active listening. We need to listen to learn what is going on around the lab, to understand the interactions of the people, and to build effective work relationships. If we really want to take best advantage of all the skills, knowledge, and experience of our talented staffs, we need to listen to them, and encourage them to speak openly and honestly. We need to ask them to tell us what we need to hear, not just what we want to hear.

3. Promoting Safety

Providing a safe workplace for staff is absolutely required for people to deliver their best work. Lab managers must act in ways that enable staff to feel safe—physically, emotionally, and psychologically.3 Most laboratory managers are comfortable addressing physical safety, but we also need to provide emotional and psychological safety. Emotional safety is about providing safe social connections and enabling people to do their best work. Psychological safety is about providing protection for new, creative, and innovative ideas and enabling people to share their true thoughts.4

4. Being Vulnerable

Vulnerability is hard. Being vulnerable goes against the thought that the lab manager should know everything, have all the answers, and never make mistakes.5 Showing vulnerability requires trust, but also helps build trust. Sharing vulnerability enables managers to get better help and take full advantage of all the smart and experienced people around the lab.6 Some key ways lab managers can demonstrate vulnerability include, asking for help, acknowledging being wrong, and praising staff with better ideas than ours. Being vulnerable will help grow trust, collaboration, and cooperation around the lab. This behavior will enable the organization to perform at a high level.

5. Ask for help

Asking for help can be a powerful leadership behavior.7 While some leaders think that asking for help signals ignorance, laziness, or incompetence, most people don’t agree. People who regularly ask for help are seen to be smart, courageous, and successful. Appropriately asking for help is a behavior that consistently leads to success in the workplace. Asking for help allows lab managers to learn faster, resolve problems quicker, and make use of the talent around the lab more effectively.

6. Establish business purpose

Effective lab managers instill a clear sense of purpose at work and in their teams. Having purpose is more than crafting clever mission and vision statements. Purpose provides clarity around the important ‘why’ questions for the lab.8 Purpose answers key questions from lab personnel around why the lab exists, why they work so hard, and why the technical output of the lab is important. Top lab managers align their people behind a powerful purpose to engage with the lab’s mission and deliver high team performance.

7. Demonstrate grit: passion and perseverance

The best lab managers demonstrate grit on a regular basis. Grit is the combination of passion and perseverance.9 Passion is what we care about deeply, what we find ourselves dreaming about, and the topics that we simply must learn more about. Leaders with passion show true caring about their work and can’t think of other things they might want to be doing. Perseverance is the willingness to stick to a path or an approach despite the difficulties and challenges. Leaders with perseverance enable their labs to find the creativity, innovation, and hard work to overcome the challenges. The combination, grit, is the secret sauce for many successful lab managers. Grit enables them to care deeply about the ideas and actions of the labs, and to continue to work hard toward their goals.

8. Willing to give freely

Lab managers who consistently give of their time, experience, and knowledge can build strong and supportive networks.10 Most staff are very happy to work with and for leaders who openly share. Leaders who willingly share are more likely to also receive. That reciprocal giving provides more opportunity and more success than any individual trying to do it all alone. Sharing within a giving network brings the benefits to everyone, and helps protect the givers from individuals only interested in taking. 

9. Independence through rebel talent

Developing a little independence enables lab leaders to pursue our passions and to demonstrate ownership and accountability for our decisions and actions. It also enables lab managers to recognize independence in others and to enable staff to act independently. Several positive elements contribute to appropriate independence at work: novelty, curiosity, perspective, diversity, and authenticity.11 Effective lab leaders actively demonstrate the benefits of new challenges, wonder, broadening perspectives, valuing differences, and learning from others. The lab managers who can communicate these attitudes to staff and make these independence behaviors safe in our workplaces will encourage self-confidence and accountability. These two traits will raise the overall performance of the lab.

10. Decision making

Decision making is a critical skill for all lab managers. Staff look to the lab leader to be the source of key decisions. Teddy Roosevelt said, “The best outcome is making the right decision, the second-best outcome is making the wrong decision, and the worst outcome is making no decision.” Effective lab managers need to make decisions, own our decisions (especially the ones that don’t work as planned), communicate our decision-making process, and follow through after the decision is made. Lack of decision making reduces trust in the lab, casts doubt on the process, and erodes confidence in the lab manager. Lab managers are forced to make decisions promptly and often when wishing for more information. To improve the decision-making process, we can ask for help, consider diverse opinions, and clearly communicate. By demonstrating prompt decision making, we model effective decision making for our lab staff, which speeds up the whole process and takes advantage of the talent in the organization.

11. Having a growth mindset

Lab managers face a constantly changing environment with technical innovation, new instruments, and regulatory evolution. The most successful lab managers develop a growth mindset and pursue lifelong learning to build the skills and knowledge needed to keep up with the changes.12 Having a growth mindset enables us and the people around us to continually grow and develop. Hiring and developing dynamic learners in the lab enables us to generate an environment of problem-solving and agility. Encouraging staff to develop and grow also builds staff engagement, helps with retention, and builds morale. 

12. Enable employee development

Effective lab managers build systems that drive staff growth.13 Behaviors that can aid staff development include effective roles, SMART objectives, and consistent, constructive feedback. Providing the things that staff need to grow and develop enables them to improve, try new things, and be innovative. By combining a focus on growth with building strengths, rather than improving weaknesses, we can achieve excellence for the lab.

Leadership matters

Effective lab leadership is driven through a series of small actions across a spectrum of leadership behaviors. Leadership matters so much because people accomplish the mission.  Better-led people perform at a higher level, generate better ideas, and produce more work output.  Higher engagement in the lab staff enables higher levels of discretionary time, ideas, and attention. Effective lab managers raise the engagement of staff by caring, listening, and driving a positive culture. Successful lab leaders model and teach the elements of success by demonstrating grit, giving, learning, and independence. In any lab, people are the most important component of the organization. The right leadership behaviors enable staff to thrive and be successful. As valuation expert Dave Bookbinder says, “The value of a business is a function of how well the financial capital and the intellectual capital are managed by the human capital. You’d better get the human capital part right.”

Definitions

Managerthe person responsible for ensuring the lab meets its mission, delivers its outcomes, operates safely and with high quality, and delivers the science correctly.

Accountabilityacknowledging, accepting, meeting, and addressing shortcomings in commitments.

Authenticitycharacterized by a person being genuine, realistic, and honest. 

Careto show compassion to another person.  An effort to better understand, help, and keep another safe. 

Curiosity the desire to explore, investigate new experiences, and learn new things. 

Decisionthe act of choosing an alternative to answer a question, resolve a problem, or pick a direction. 

Diversityunderstanding the value of the unique individual, enabling differences to be celebrated and valued. 

Engagement the degree to which staff contribute discretionary time, effort, ideas, and attention to support the mission of the organization. 

Giving the act of sharing what we have to benefit another. 

Gritfull belief and passion about the mission and the dedication, persistence, and perseverance to reach the desired goal. 

Growth mindset the understanding that intelligence is not static, that intelligence can be developed with effort. 

Independence at workthe ability and the desire to work without close supervision. Exhibiting signs of ownership for the key outputs and outcomes of the organization. 

Innovationthe process of implementing a new idea into an action, process, or product that didn’t exist before.

Leaderpeople who consistently do the right thing in and for the lab. Could be anyone, independent of hierarchy. More about attitude than about authority. 

Leadershipthe acts of the leader. The acts that translate a vision into something actionable and real.  

Listeningto hear, clarify, understand, and be able to paraphrase what another has spoken. 

Mission statementa public statement helping staff, leadership, and stakeholders understand the purpose and goals of the organization. 

Noveltysomething that is new, creative, or innovative. 

Organizational purposethe reasons the organization exists, why people work hard there, and who benefits from the efforts put forth by the people associated with it. 

Passiona full desire to know what needs to be known and do what needs to be done to bring an idea to life. 

Perseverancepersistence in the face of challenges, obstacles, and disappointment. Stick to it-ness. 

Reciprocal mutual. The expectation that others will treat us the way we treat them, good, bad, or neutral. 

Strengthsthings someone does very well. Could be tasks, analyses, ways of thinking, interacting with others, etc. 

Vision statementarticulates the goal of the organization and connects that goal to the core values of the business. 

Vulnerabilitythe willingness to share openly and fully with mutual trust. The ability to share new ideas, ask for help, and take ownership of actions and decisions. 

Workplace culturewhat the organization cares about, what stories they tell, and what values they uphold.

Useful references for leaders:

  1. https://news.gallup.com/reports/191489/q12-meta-analysis-report-2016.aspx 
  2. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_science_of_what_makes_people_care#  
  3. http://danielcoyle.com/the-culture-code/ 
  4. https://fearlessorganization.com/ 
  5. https://www.tablegroup.com/books/the-advantage/ 
  6. http://danielcoyle.com/the-culture-code/ 
  7. https://www.waynebaker.org/ask 
  8. http://danielcoyle.com/the-culture-code/ 
  9. http://angeladuckworth.com/grit-book/ 
  10. https://www.adamgrant.net/give-and-take 
  11. https://www.rebeltalents.org/ 
  12. https://www.pnas.org/content/113/31/8664.full 
  13. https://www.gallup.com/press/176069/first-break-rules-world-greatest-managers-differently.aspx