Effective leadership in a research environment

leadership cloudLeadership is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the power or ability to lead other people.” But what does that really mean, and how can one do it effectively? Specifically in a research environment, leadership is a crucial skill for future investigators to develop during their own research training, in order to be able to, in turn, lead their own research groups. Being the leader of a laboratory requires juggling many things on a daily basis, such as writing manuscripts and grants, discussing experiments and data with lab members, attending seminars, teaching classes, etc. Here I provide some tips on being an effective research team leader. However, these tips can also be applied to leading other groups:

Create a good work environment. One’s staff (used in this article to refer to any research team member) should be like family, and the leader of a laboratory should foster good values, such as collaboration and teamwork, among laboratory members. The leader should strive to treat everyone in the group equally, without showing any favoritism. He/she should make all the lab members feel like they belong in the group, in order to create a sense of value and cohesiveness within the group. It is also important to give context to their research work both within the laboratory, as well as within their broader field of work.

Value the staff. Realize that most staff will work hard day and night, because they are passionate about their work, and of course want to advance their careers. However, they also want to please their leader. Make them feel valued by asking for their input, encouraging them to perform high quality work, and praising their efforts when doing a good job.

Get to know the staff personally. It’s always a good idea to spend some one-on-one time with the staff, getting to know their likes and dislikes. However, do respect their wishes in terms of how much they want to share about their personal lives. Setting boundaries but allowing people to be open will allow for the development of a positive relationship with the staff.

Update the staff on group news. On a regular basis, everyone in the laboratory should be notified of the most recent group developments, such as newly funded grants, accepted papers, etc. This way the group leader can create a sense of community within the group, where everyone is aware of the same latest developments. Sharing the latest laboratory news in a timely manner also helps people within the laboratory to collaborate with each other, allowing them for example to learn a technique which their colleague utilized in their publication.

Help the staff learn from failures. As we all know, research experiments fail most of the time, and we live for those few glorious moments when things just “click” and projects work. The important part is not to take these failures personally. The leader should let the staff know that it’s ok to fail from time to time, as long as they don’t repeat those mistakes. He/she should encourage their staff to see these experiences as professional learning opportunities.

Celebrate successes. Perhaps even more important than accepting failures is to reward and celebrate the successes of the staff. Too often we criticize people for things they are doing wrong and forget to applaud their successes. However, making people feel valued and appreciated is an important part of effective leadership. Ways to accomplish this would be praising the staff during a laboratory meeting, taking the laboratory members to lunch, or bringing in a cake or champagne.

Inspire people. The group leader should let people know that their work is valuable, and they are valuable as staff members. But one should go beyond that. The leader should also encourage his/her staff to strive to do better and want to exceed their own (as well as the leader’s) expectations. He/she should strive to inspire their staff by expressing their own passion for the work at hand, and should also try to instill (or just bring out) the same passion in them.

Encourage your staff to chase their dreams. The leader should do more than just encourage people to do exemplary work on a daily basis—he/she should also make their staff feel like they can do more than they think they can. At the same time, he/she should also realize that staff may have dreams for the future that differ from those that their leader has for them. In this case, the leader should be open to the life plans/goals of the staff, and help them achieve those goals. The staff will likely be very appreciative of their leader’s mentorship and guidance if the leader is able to provide help that will allow them to get where they want to go in life.

Lead by example. The staff will look up to the group leader for guidance, therefore he/she should always be sure to practice what they preach. It is very easy to have concrete ideas about how something should be done, and then not actually do it that way. However, the staff will notice if the leader says one thing and does another. Therefore, the leader should always make sure that what he/she says and do are congruent with one another—this will help create a positive relationship with the staff, who will likely strive to emulate their leader (which is a good goal for the leader to strive for).

Provide sufficient guidance. The leader should make sure to be available when staff needs help—this is especially important for people who have only been working in the group for a short time, or people with limited research experience. As a leader, he/she should provide guidance to their staff both in terms of their daily experiments, as well as their overall career paths. The leader should realize that some people may need more guidance early on, and make sure to check with them on a daily (or at least weekly) basis on their progress. This will ensure that the staff do not feel lost, and in time they will learn to think of their group leader as someone they can turn to for help.

Create new leaders. While initially people who have been in the laboratory for a short time (or people with limited research experience) may need more guidance, at some point most people will need to be given independence in order to think on their feet and be confident in their decisions. Even beyond this point, the skill of enabling people to think for themselves will be very valuable to them in their future careers. In addition, working together with them to cultivate these skills is a great thing to do. In this manner, their group leader can be their partner, someone who works together with them to make decisions rather than just give them instructions. Thus, the leader should encourage independent thinking and strive to create new leaders out of their staff members. Their current staff members might in turn do the same with their own research groups in the future, and thus propagate effective leadership across generations.

In conclusion, being an effective leader encompasses many things, not the least of which is realizing that we have a duty to treat other people in our group the way we would like to be treated. The leadership training we provide to our staff will likely transcend beyond their time in the group, and will likely shape aspects of their life, including their personal life, their professional development, their ability to think on their own, as well as their ability to lead others in the future.

About the Author:

Adriana Bankston is a Principal Legislative Analyst in the University of California (UC) Office of Federal Governmental Relations, where she serves as an advocate for UC with Congress, the Administration, and federal agencies. Prior to this position, Adriana was a Policy & Advocacy Fellow at The Society for Neuroscience (SfN), where she provided staff support for special and ongoing projects, including SfN’s annual lobby event and the society’s annual meeting. In addition to working at UC, Adriana also serves as Vice-President of Future of Research, and is Chief Outreach Officer at the Journal of Science Policy and Governance. Adriana obtained her PhD in Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology from Emory University and a Bachelor’s in Biological Sciences from Clemson University.
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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