Lab management is a big, complex, and unrelenting role. The lab depends on the lab manager for a wide range of decisions across people leadership, lab operations, science, safety, quality, budgets, stakeholder relationships, and advocating to line management. The demands of the role impact all lab staff. To sustain this role and be effective, lab managers need to get away, rest, and recuperate. Effective people leaders work with staff to ensure they take time away, but many lab managers don’t apply the same principles to themselves. The risk of constantly being tuned in to the lab is burnout and reduced effectiveness. As the flight attendant states during the safety review on every flight, “put your own oxygen mask on first before attempting to help others.” The same is true for lab management—take care of yourself, or you won’t be able to help your team. Here are three things lab managers can do to improve their ability to take time off and disconnect from the lab.
#1 – Delegate
One of the harder leadership skills to master is delegation. Experienced experts often think that it is faster, better, and easier to do the work themselves, rather than to teach someone else. While that might be true for any specific instance of the work, it results in always needing to execute that work in the future. Find some activities that benefit the development of future leaders of the lab and start sharing them. Reframe these activities from doubling the commitment to helping to develop others. Once this transition is complete, doing this work yourself is stealing development opportunities from key staff.
#2 – Create leaders
The most important activity of a leader is not to create followers, but to develop new leaders. These new leaders must have the opportunities to make decisions and learn. Find activities in the lab for staff to have ownership. Scale the scope of the activity to the experience and potential of the individual. Enable them to have control over that activity and to make the decisions required for that activity to prosper. Ownership will help develop them as leaders, and it will reduce the leadership burden of the lab manager. Provide cover and coaching to these new owners. They need the opportunity to fail to effectively learn. The lab manager must ensure that no issues negatively impact the broader lab and that they receive the constructive feedback necessary to learn and improve.
#3 – Enable the leader to disappear
In his book The Culture Code, best-selling author and advisor Daniel Coyle promotes the idea of shared vulnerability as a key aspect of highly performing teams. One action that promotes a positive culture is enabling the leader to disappear. When decisions are required in the absence of the lab manager, the team will need to act on their experience and training. This helps them make the investments in their own growth, shares an appreciation for the work of the lab manager, and enables the lab manager to better understand where additional development is needed.