Managing the meat

Jul 23 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

There's lots challenging parts to this job, but few are as variable and rapidly changing as managing the people in your lab. When everyone is working well together it is great, but the pendulum always swings the other way at some point. Each new member of the lab changes the dynamic in some way. It doesn't have to be positive or negative, but there is always some shift. The trick is making sure things don't go too far bad when they do start to slip off the rails.

Everyone has baggage. And that includes you. We are all, to one degree or another, a product of the management we have experienced. Perhaps you've been through a few labs and have an idea of how you want to approach your mentoring, but the range of possible is far greater than any one person is going to be subjected to. Trainees coming from another lab or making your lab their first stop, similarly have expectations that are either learned or imagined. The first few months is important in terms of setting expectations for both sides. Your availability, their hours, communication, dealing with data, lab protocols and SOPs, etc., etc. Sometimes you'll need to real people in and other times you'll need to force them to take more line.

What's nearly impossible to pre-manage, IME, are interactions among your group. This is largely because much of it is going to be hidden from you unless things get pretty far down the road. You'll always be playing catch-up and getting partial information. Many of us are competitive by nature, and that can manifest in both legitimate and ridiculous ways in a lab. Much of it doesn't require intervention, but occasionally it is necessary to get people together and figure out where the problem is and what can be done. If you're lucky you catch it early and can find a way to ensure a working relationship between the parties. If you're not, well, that's less fun.

What I find helps is having a fairly open policy about drop-ins and conversations with anyone in the lab. It's not always convenient or helpful for my productivity, but I can't really afford to have the productivity in the lab go south over personal frictions, so I make the time. For me, open communication with the people in my lab has been critical to making sure there is open communication between them. Usually I can see the seeds of developing conflict if people feel comfortable talking to me about what is and isn't working for them.

Have you been in a lab where everyone got along great? Have you been in an unhappy lab? Have you seen labs shift from one to the other? Was the cause a new person or people, or did it relate to a shift in management style?

6 responses so far

  • Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

    I was in a lab that got along great for a long time. All lab members were very good with one another. Then it so happened that the PI starting becoming unhappy with one person who had been in the lab for years because her experiments were not panning out for a few months. This lab mate then got increasingly frustrated by the day and that created friction in the entire lab. Heck, it even spread to other labs that we interacted with. It was a mess. In this case the PI was partly to blame for not handling it better or keeping it contained between the two of them.

  • GradStu says:

    I was in a lab where everyone got along great -- scientifically and socially. Now I'm in a different lab where we don't really have any personality conflicts, but people are not the least bit interested in socializing with one another, not even around the topic of science. Everyone is just mostly on their own, which I think sucks and makes me jealous of others in "fun" labs. Our PI tries to have the same open door policy that you do. However, at times when I've gone in there to talk to him, instead of actually listening to what I have to say, he'll argue with me over what a great group we have. It's as if the suggestion that our group is not ideal in any way personally wounds him or something. Maybe he thinks if he were a better leader, the group would gel better? Dunno.... But I am less and less likely to be honest w/him these days about any issues, since he doesn't seem to really listen.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I don't think lab members need to be friends or hang out in order to make a good lab. Sometimes that can actually make things tougher and add drama to the workplace, but when it goes well then it can improve overall morale. I'm more concerned about when things take a bad turn and the malcontent spreads. That's the real enemy.

  • darchole says:

    Once it starts to involve other labs, the PI should be intervening at that point. I've got a problem with another tech, who keeps screwing things up which I then spend more time fixing (my boss blames both of us for the situation, but I come up with specific instances of where my co-worker screwed up, but my boss can't come up with any problems with my work) . The screw-ups have also happened when collaborating or getting training from other labs, so getting other labs to help us out now is harder once they find out they're going to have to deal with my co-worker.

  • GradStu says:

    @PLS: Maybe I didn't describe the situation well enough. I'm not talking about being good enough friends to talk about personal problems with labmates. I'm talking about a lab where people don't really interact unless they're forced to (i.e., PI assigns them to work together on a project). So if someone is stuck, for example, they don't, in general, seek out the advice of more experienced students in the lab, unless the PI tells them, "go ask X about that -- they should be able to help you." I think this is a bit dysfunctional. I would prefer being in a lab where there is more "intellectual life," where people are excited to talk about their work and the science behind it just because it's cool -- and not because they have a problem and the PI is making them ask s.o. or work with s.o. else on a project.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Yeah, lack of interaction can be a problem if it means there's no help or discussion around solving issues.

    darchole, my hope is to deal with things before other labs get involved, but sometimes that's not possible.

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