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Motivating A 21st Century Lab Staff, Part 1

Managers need to understand work groups, organizational practices and individual employee characteristics

by Ronald B. Pickett
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Think back over your life and recall a high pointa time in your work experience when you felt the most alive, most engaged, or most successful. How did it unfold? What was it about the organization, your management, and your staff that made it stand out? What was it about you that made it a high point?

Thinking about this brings up some very interesting stories and recollections; people like to recall these high points and the way that they felt. (This process was described in the article Honing Your Interviewing Skills, which appeared in the October 2009 issue of Lab Manager Magazine.)

When 25 or 30 of these stories are analyzed, several consistent themes emerge. These themes define the organizational characteristics that lead to exceptional work experiencesthe situations that result in a highly motivated staff. Indeed, if you review your own story, you will probably get a good idea about what motivates you on the job.

If you would like to review some of the seminal work in the field, you might read Douglas McGregor, Abraham Maslow and Frederick Herzberg, authors whose work, while getting a little long in the tooth, still forms the basis of most of our understanding of human motivation. (Selected references are listed at the end of this article.) The most telling and consistent thrust of these authors theories is that people want to work, and it is the work itself that makes the most important and sustained contribution to motivation. Certainly that is true for scientists who have spent years preparing for their positions.

A core management responsibility

One of the core accountabilities of a manager is to motivate his or her staff. If the level of enthusiasm is low, the manager must bear the major responsibility. But what can a manager do to improve the motivation level of a diverse, bright, and challenging staff ? Hint: If you have worked in organizations with different climates, how many of the differences can you attribute to the actions of the manager?

Managing motivation can best be understood by looking at three areas: the climate or environment in the work group; the policies and practices in the organization; and the characteristics and interests of individual employees.

A motivational climate

Frankly, the U.S. Postal Service does not have a reputation for exemplary management practices. In fact, the term going postal has entered our vocabularyand it isnt positive! Given that, I have been surprised by the attitude of my local post office employees. Every time I go to this branch, I am amazed and delighted by the friendly and positive feeling that all of the employees exude. They are competent, quick in doing the job, and happy in their work.

Ive asked them why they are in such good moods and they find it hard to describe, but it is clear that the manager has set high expectations about the level of customer service that is expected, and also that peer pressure is another important factor. You just cant be a grouch and work at this branch! Sadly, this workplace is an exception; a negative attitude seems to be easier to spread throughout many organizations.

Research has shown that a healthy organizational climate positively impacts the bottom line. (See Organizational Climate, Productivity and Creativity and Organizational Climate and Company Productivity: the Role of Employee Affect and Employee Level in the references.)

But what constitutes a healthy climate? The Hay Group has conducted extensive research in this area and has identified six critical climate dimensions:

  • Clarity: everyone in the organization knows what is expected of him/her
  • Standards: challenging but attainable goals are set
  • Responsibility: employees are given authority to accomplish tasks
  • Flexibility: there are no unnecessary rules, policies, or procedures
  • Rewards: employees are recognized and rewarded for good performance
  • Team commitment: people are proud to belong to the organization

When employees rate these dimensions as high, they are saying they are motivated by their workplace; that it is an enjoyable and productive place to be; and that they give their best and are confident they will be recognized for their contributions. When they rate these dimensions as low, they are saying the opposite, and the organization runs the risk of seeing this translated into low morale, performance, and profits. (For more on this topic, visit the Hay Group website at:

Organizational policies

The second major area includes the policies and practices of the organization. It is virtually impossible to have highly motivated employees in an organization with restrictive, antiquated, and cheap policiespolicies that do not value and reward employees for their performance. Benefits must be equitable; pay must be fair and at or above the going rate; recognition and rewards must be frequent and tied to the interests of the individuals; and vacation and holidays must be generous. Without these, it is impossible to recruit and retain top-notch employees. This is particularly true in a market in which there are not enough trained scientists to meet the needs.

Isnt that the HR departments job? Isnt that what the executives are paid to do? Whats a managers responsibility in affecting company policies?

Yes, it is HRs job, and it is a responsibility of the executives, but as a line manager you have the best view of the way policies affect the employees. You are the one who faces the brunt of the complaints and dissatisfaction; you hear comments about the equity of pay and benefits; and you see people leaving for better working conditions and compensation packages. Optimally, the HR director should be a peersomeone you can talk to about the impact of policies, the results of wage surveys, and other items of importance to your staff.

We have been conducting some interviews of managers who have been in their jobs for nearly a year. One of the things emerging from these interviews is that they fire people! They find out quickly who is not performing, who is disruptive, and who does not fit inpeople the previous manager did not deal with. They set up a specific way for the employees to be rehabilitated. Then they work with the HR staff to put them on notice and, if they dont perform or change, they let them go. In these interviews, the managers tell us that this has a big impact on the rest of the staff and has not induced fear. Everyone knew that these poor performers were misfitsthat they were having a negative impact on the rest of the staff and that the new manager had done the right thing.

What does this mean for managers who have been in the same job for several years? Review your staff. Is there someone you have been meaning to counsel, or for whom you want to start a process that may lead to his or her dismissal, but you have avoided getting started? If so, in the words of the Nike ad: Just Do It! This is especially especially important when you may be required to reduce your staff size. Otherwise, you may only have the option of losing the newest hires.

Individual characteristics

If there is one lesson that the 9/11 terrorist attacks confirmed, it is that (at the core) we Americans are much more alike than we are different. We have the same dreams, values, and aspirations, and the people of our nation respond to a crisis in a unified and strong manner. Now if you take a group that has similar characteristics and put them through the rigorous testing and trials of a scientific education, the outcome group is surprisingly alike on a variety of dimensions.

The message for managers is that to understand your staff, start from the truth that their fundamental personality characteristics are very similar, and they are probably very similar to yours. This fact makes it easier to establish a motivating environment and find the significant individual differences that can be used to develop a plan to motivate and maintain the motivation of each staff member.

Another important point for lab managers to remember is that the selection and training process for scientists means that you have a group of people who are significantly different from the normbrighter, more curious, able to concentrate on details for long periods of time, technically savvy, concerned with accuracy, dedicated to the quality of their product. However, that also means that in many respects they are quite similar.


Many laboratories operate in shifts. Most managers set up a rotation and expect their employees to work out differences, and then they stand ready to be the final arbitrators . With the wide variety of different family structures, demands, and lifestyles, it may be that some of your staff members may want to work some of the generally less desirable shifts or holidays. Knowing your staff s individual needs and interests can turn a challenging problem into a clear win.

In Motivating a 21st Century Lab Staff, Part II, I will describe the characteristics of the different age cohorts who currently populate the workplace. Recent findings in this field will help managers do a better job of understanding and managing motivation.

1. Blanchard, K., and Bowles, S. Gung Ho! Turn On the People in Any Organization, William Morrow, 1997; ISBN: 068815428X
2. Blanchard, K., and Nelson, B. 1001 Ways to Energize Employees, Workman Publishing, 1997; ISBN: 0761101608
3. Braksick, L. Unlock Behavior, Unleash Profits, McGraw- Hill Professional, 1999; ISBN: 0071358781
4. Clarke, T. Organizational Climate, Productivity and Creativity, Stargate Consultants Ltd., 1996; http://
5. Maslow, A., Frager, R., and Fadiman, J. Motivation and Personality, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 3rd ed., 1987; ISBN: 0060419873
6. Patterson, M., Warr, P., and West, M. Organizational Climate and Company Productivity: the Role of Employee Affect and Employee Level, CEPDP 626, April 2004; Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics and Political Science, London
7. Schier, T.J. Send Flowers to the Living! Rewards, Contests and Incentives to Build Employee Loyalty, Incentivize Solutions, 2002; ISBN: 0971657300