Motivate Your Lab

How to run an efficient and creative lab without micromanaging

Jun 1, 2012
Edyta Zielinska

IMAGES.COM/CORBIS/ART VALERO

Even though he had just landed a grant for an exciting new project to study why and when people fail to monitor their progress towards a goal, University of Sheffield social psychologist Thomas Webb was a little stressed. “It’s only me and the two postdocs, and I knew it would come down to my management style,” at least as far as getting the work done. So he set up weekly meetings, in which the group outlined the tasks that needed to be performed and set deadlines for each task.

As with most young investigators, Webb’s success in academia relies in large part on the initiative, drive, and creativity of his research team. Webb is one of a number of social psychologists whose research grapples with the question of what motivates people, what makes them adopt new habits or break bad ones. It can be challenging to apply some of the findings to one’s own research team, when faced with the same questions that challenge every new manager: how to get the most out of your team without micromanaging them.

Managing highly intelligent people who want autonomy is like herding a bunch of cats.
—Vish Krishnan, Rady School of Management, UCSD

Research teams comprise postdocs, graduate students, and research assistants, individuals who each have different career goals and are “highly intelligent and want autonomy,” says Vish Krishnan, a management scientist at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Rady School of Management. “Managing such teams is like herding a bunch of cats,” he says. The good news is that some recent research on keeping people motivated is providing new explanations for some old tenets of good management.

The Scientist spoke to a number of social psychologists and management researchers about how to apply their newest science to help run a lab.

Define their motivation

While a laboratory may have a single overarching goal or research focus, the daily work of science requires the completion of multiple subgoals, some of which may not seem as glorious or as relevant as some team members would like. One way to get everyone working as a team is to discern how best to motivate each of them. “Some people are better at avoidance goals. Some are better at approach goals,” says David Neal, a social psychologist who works on habit formation and is cofounder of Empirica Research, a market research firm. Most people will know which group they belong to: do you tend to study for an exam because you want the “A,” or do you study because you’re afraid of failing? “There are individual differences,” says Neal. Find them out, and you can frame tasks as either gaining a positive goal or avoiding a negative one.

Get gritty

“Grit” is the word psychologist Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania came up with to describe the characteristics of top leaders who are passionate about a goal over the long term. People who make it through military boot camp have it, and it’s likely that successful scientists have it too. Grit is defined as a characteristic of someone who sustains interest in projects, does not give up despite encountering obstacles, and diligently finds ways to improve his or her work. “Science is so long-term and so uncertain. You have to be in there for decades to see the impact of your work,” says Duckworth. While some people seem to come by grit naturally, Duckworth believes that it is a trait that can be developed, and part of it comes from becoming more comfortable with frustration, she says. In a laboratory setting, regularly assessing obstacles that can lead to frustration and delay can help the team get into the habit of solving problems early.

Perfectionism can lead to myopia and to not searching widely for solutions.
—Paul Schoemaker, Wharton School,
University of Pennsylvani

Get uncomfortable

“We prefer to do things correctly rather than incorrectly. We prefer to be praised,” says Duckworth. This is in part what makes getting negative feedback so difficult. But when a person can focus at least a part of each day on the uncomfortable things that he or she is not good at, says Duckworth, it usually leads to tremendous improvement over time. But it isn’t easy. During one-on-one meetings, managers can ask team members to make a list of areas they want to improve upon—whether it is expertise at a particular protocol or personal skills such as time management or writing—and to make a plan for improving those areas.

Encourage mistakes

“Perfectionism can lead to myopia and to not searching widely” for solutions, says Paul Schoemaker, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. As a society, “we emphasize perfection too much, at the expense of success,” he says. Acquiring and cultivating grit requires making mistakes, Duckworth says. When experiments fail, a careful assessment of all the specific reasons for the failure can make the setback feel more like an opportunity to learn than a disappointment. At lab meetings, have your team members get in the habit of presenting each setback along with an assessment of why it occurred and a possible solution. “Most entrepreneurs, and the venture capitalists who invest in them, live by a bold mantra: fail fast, often, and cheaply,” writes Schoemaker in his book Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Opportunity in Failure.

Allow a bit of sloppiness

The discoverer of penicillin, Alexander Fleming, was as playful in his scientific habits as he was in his life. “When he played golf, he wouldn’t follow the rules,” says Schoemaker, who writes about Fleming in his new book. Nor did he follow today’s standards of laboratory hygiene, letting his bacterial cultures be overgrown by the Penicillin fungus that ended up killing them—a slip-up that has saved millions of lives. Lab PIs can challenge their team to come up with an experiment that they think is sure to fail, and then perform it to test their assumptions.

Spur creativity

Although grit and perseverance are important traits, sometimes rigor needs to take a backseat to creativity. “Physical and psychological distance from the workplace seem to affect creativity,” says UCSD’s Krishnan. While it might help to hold some meetings outside of the lab, Krishnan says the same idea can be implemented with a thought experiment. Have your team members imagine trying to solve a problem under new constraints, says Krishnan. What might a competitor’s lab do; what would a lab with few or many resources do? Imagining the problem in a different context can help “people relax their assumptions,” he says.

Find the right granularity

Goals, such as getting grant funding, should not be put on your task list. “If my task for today is to write this paper for Science,” then it’ll never get done, says Neal.  “Motivationally speaking, breaking a project up into the right steps for you” can be a great help. “Make explicit lists at the right level of granularity,” suggests Neal. If it looks as though one of your team members is not performing up to par, have them show you how they’ve broken up the task into manageable chunks that can be assessed individually, and work with them to do so if they haven’t.

Outsource the tough stuff

Keeping on task can require a lot of self-control, which some researchers think people have in limited quantity. One study showed that people who forced themselves to eat radishes rather than chocolates quit faster on a puzzle task than those who did not have to exert self-control (J Pers Soc Psychol, 74:1252-65, 1998). A recent study by Gráinne Fitzsimons at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business showed that people may be more effective when they outsource their need for self-control. An example is getting a running partner: having a friend collect you for a run removes the necessity of motivating yourself in isolation. This idea can be applied to a laboratory setting by incorporating a social aspect into the pursuit of goals. Although working in teams does not apply to every task, creating situations where tasks are done in parallel could improve overall motivation.