Lab management: 10 tips for motivating your research group

Lab management: 10 tips for motivating your research group

Managing a research lab requires balancing experiments with grant applications, reading papers, admin tasks and managing people. It can be easy to get lost in the midst of the many tasks you have to do and lose focus on managing your team. Here are some tips to help you successfully manage your lab and keep the members of your lab motivated, ultimately resulting in a happy and successful lab.

1. Find out what motivates the members of your lab

Different researchers prefer different types of work, for example, data analysis, experiments, data management, write-ups, learning new techniques or how to use a new software. It is important to understand what motivates the members of your lab on an individual basis, as what motivates one person may not motivate the next.

Ask the team members from your lab what they enjoy doing and what motivates them. Getting to know them individually will also help you to understand what they are motivated by. You could also ask them to complete a quiz similar to this.

Use this information to adapt the project goals for each member of your lab to ensure it will motivate them. This will lead to a team of hardworking, motivated people who enjoy what they are doing each day.

2. Help them develop their skills

A skilled lab is a successful lab. Define the skills that the members of your lab want to develop. This could be both practical lab skills, such as improving seal formation during patch-clamp experiments and interpersonal skills, for example presentation or communication skills.

Helping your team to improve the skills that they want to improve will increase their motivation, productivity and confidence. This in turn will create a successful lab.

It is also important to challenge your lab members to step out of their comfort zone, to help them develop skills that they aren’t as good at.

3. Avoid micromanaging

Always checking up on what your lab members are doing and telling them exactly how to do things wont help your lab learn and, in the long run, they will become frustrated and less motivated to finish their project.

Instead, give the members of your lab freedom to manage their own time, plan their days and learn from their mistakes. Ask them if they want some guidance, discussion or help in planning – not everyone knows how to do this, and they might want to learn from different perspectives.

4. Communicate and ask for opinions

Keeping your team up-to-date and informed with anything that affects their work is extremely important. If your lab feels like they aren’t being kept in the loop, they will be less inclined to give their full efforts.

Asking for opinions ensures your lab feel like they are listened to and that they can really make a difference. Most people want to have an input and have their say – it is important to give everyone opportunities to do this.

5. Set clear goals

It is vital for everyone in your lab to have smaller achievable goals throughout their project that help them achieve their ultimate project goal. Using the CLEAR acronym with the below definitions can help you set goals for yourself and for your lab:

  • Collaborative – goals should encourage the members of the lab to work together. This doesn’t need to be the case with every goal, as some can and should be personal, but each member of the lab should have some goals that involve collaboration too.
  • Limited – the scope and duration of goals should have clear limits to avoid them being never-ending and achievable.
  • Emotional – if the goal is something that the person cares about, it will utilise their passion and be more fulfilling and achievable.
  • Appreciable – break down large goals into smaller ones to make them more achievable and less daunting.
  • Refinable – goals can be modified when situations change or if results don’t go as planned.

6. Celebrate success and say thank you

Saying ‘thank you’ and congratulating your colleagues will make them feel valued and appreciated. Efforts and achievements need to be recognised not only when a paper is published, as otherwise members of your lab may not make an effort to do their best if it is never appreciated.

7. Give constructive feedback

Constructive feedback is a combination of praise for what has been done well and suggestions for what could be improved. It is important that employees know what they are doing well as well as what they could improve on.

To give constructive feedback, you need to be clear and honest. It is important to give both positive and negative feedback and give specific examples as to what needs to be improved, why and how, to avoid any confusion. Feedback needs to be given regularly to ensure the members of your lab feel appreciated and to avoid anything negative becoming a habit.

Rather than just talking at the member of your team, a good way of giving feedback is to let the lab member talk first, guiding them with questions only. Good guiding questions could include ‘What do you think went well?’ , ‘What do you think could have been done better?’ and ‘Is there anything you would change next time?’. These questions help the lab member reflect on what what went well and what could be improved, before you give your feedback. They may come to the same conclusion as you, on their own.

8. Help them achieve a work-life balance

Employees who are able to balance their work and personal lives tend to be more motivated and less stressed, leading to higher productivity. Ways you can help your lab achieve this balance are:

  • Offer flexible working hours

For example flexible start/finish times, condensed week, flexible lunch-times.

  • Have a work-life balance yourself

Lead by example, if you work long hours or respond to emails while you are on holiday, this sends a message to your lab that this is acceptable or even an expectation.

  • Don’t contact your lab about work outside of working hours unless it is an emergency

This disrupts their work-life balance and again may set an expectation.

  • Ask your lab what would help them increase their work-life balance

See if you can accommodate it.

  • Don’t expect long hours all the time

It is OK for an employee to work long hours for a couple of days/weeks a year if there is a deadline coming up or an important experiment that requires attendance, but long hours every day/week is unsustainable and unfair on the employee.

  • Encourage staff to take holiday

This is important to ensure your lab aren't over-worked and have regular breaks, as well as to ensure holiday is taken across the year rather than in one go, which could leave you under-staffed.

  • Focus on productivity, rather than hours

Look at what has been completed rather than the number of hours someone has worked.

  • Regularly review workloads

To make sure everyone has enough work to do and that no-one has too much to do.

  • Support parents

Understand that they may need to work flexible hours, attend appointments during the working day or have to take a day off if their child is ill.

9. Don’t punish mistakes

Small mistakes aren’t usually the end of the world and are an opportunity to learn and improve for next time. Ensure your lab learns from their mistake; if they fully understand what went wrong and why, they won’t make the same mistake again.

10. Have regular one-to-ones

Have regular one-to-one meetings with each member of your lab, either every week or every two weeks. These are important as they allow your employees to discuss anything that is on their mind, from their long and short-term research goals, to how they are finding their daily workload. The employee is the focus and it should be him/her who does most of the talking.

Ensure that the one-to-one is at a convenient time and avoid cancelling unless absolutely necessary. Explain beforehand what could be discussed in these informal sessions and that they are, in no way, performance reviews. Knowing that you listen to your team and actively ask for their feedback will help you earn respect and trust, as well as improving the motivation of your team.

Example questions you can ask are:

  • What do you like most about what you do?
  • When do you feel most productive?
  • Who do you admire the most in the lab or institute? Why?
  • What skills do you want to develop?
  • How can I better support you?

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