How to Determine if Leadership, Management Training Could Improve Lab Productivity, Morale

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Businesses spend billions of dollars per year on leadership and management training for employees. If universities and other groups invested a fraction of that, research teams would run more efficiently and effectively. In fact, after a survey of more than 3,200 scientists, Nature concluded that a lack of training in lab and personnel management is one of the strongest contributors to an unhealthy—and unproductive—lab culture. Moreover, when asked what would help their labs do better work, more than 60 percent of the researches and principal investigators (PIs) polled said they needed more support for mentoring and managing.

Have you been wondering if leadership and management training could help improve the productivity and morale of your research organization?

Answer these key questions to help you gauge where your lab stands today:

How do managers and employees communicate with one another? Are there channels for open and honest dialogue?

The Nature study found that senior researchers are significantly more optimistic and confident about workplace practices than non-PIs. Nature calls this a “perception gap,” and if left unchecked, it can lead to misunderstandings and conflict, as leadership and staff each retreat to their own “bubbles.”

Repairing this disconnect requires transparency and an open-door policy, where PI and non-PIs can discuss day-to-day operations freely, without fear of retribution.

When conflicts arise, how are they resolved?

No workplace is immune from occasional disagreements. What’s critical, however, is how these conflicts are resolved.

Through leadership and management training, PIs can learn strategies to help people work through their concerns in ways that are productive and meaningful. For example, a well-facilitated, off-site retreat—even if only for one afternoon—can help everyone on the team find common ground, re-focus on larger goals and set realistic expectations for the future.

Conflict resolution also involves paying attention to people’s feelings and figuring out the true basis of the disagreement, which can often be an emotional factor unrelated to the stalemate.

Are managers in tune with their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of their team?

Different people think differently. For instance, every PI has a unique management style based on their own personality and experiences. Likewise, each lab member has individual strengths and weaknesses, which can have direct impacts on problem-solving and collaboration.

PIs need to recognize the wide range of mental diversity so common within research teams and be equipped with strategies to manage such a variety of temperaments, including their own.

Tools like the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument can help senior researchers better understand how they perceive situations and why they react the way they do.

How are employees motivated and rewarded?

Motivated employees are more engaged with their work, more productive, and more likely to stay in their jobs. However, because they’ve never had management training, many PIs are unsure how to best motivate and reward their teams. Monetary compensation or other forms of praise can be beneficial, but enabling junior researchers to choose their projects and make progress on meaningful work is often more effective. 

How often do manager attend training workshops to brush up on their skills?

Good leaders continually work to improve their management skills. PIs need to be willing to become students again, so that they continue to learn and grow into their roles. Although it may seem counterintuitive at first, success can be detrimental to a PI’s leadership capabilities. Moving up the organizational ladder without management training along the way can reinforce ineffective habits tactics and create blind spots regarding performance.

Senior researchers are typically unaccustomed to dealing with human-centered events at work. That’s why investing in leadership and management training skills for PIs is so critically important.

When a PI can effectively communicate with non-PIs, resolve conflicts, and provide motivation and rewards as needed, the entire research team becomes more productive and successful.

About Charles Leiserson & Lily Fu

Charles Leiserson is a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at MIT. He is lead instructor of the annual MIT Professional Education course, Leadership Skills for Engineering and Science Faculty, which has educated hundreds of faculty at MIT and around the world in the human issues involved in leading technical teams in academia.  He was formerly Director of Research and Director of System Architecture for Akamai Technologies, and was the Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Cilk Arts, Inc., a start-up that was acquired by Intel in 2009. He is currently a Fellow of four professional societies: ACM, AAAS, SIAM and IEEE.

Lily Fu is the Director of Short Programs & International Programs at MIT Professional Education and serves as the interim Director of Marketing & Communications.