Lab Management 101

July 31, 2009

Janus Professor has an interesting post up in which she expresses concern with the fact that she has been having trouble keeping her emotions in check when interacting with the trainees in her lab:

I have been getting frustrated with my group members lately, and since I have no internal filter, my frustration is narrated to them in real time. Some of the things I say are potentially destructive to our research and to my members’ morale. Even as these words pour out of my mouth, I realize that what I am saying is bad, and I feel guilt. The next time I see the student, I totally reverse course and shower them with praise as I try to put out my flaming guilt. From the students’ point of view, I probably appear to have wild mood swings. Actually, my emotions are pretty constant: CONSTANT FRUSTRATION.

Starting a new laboratory is extremely stressful. You go from being a post-doc in a functioning laboratory to an empty room with nothing happening. Also, by definition the new principal investigator was one of the best, hardest working, most talented trainees among her cohort, and the people who are joining a brand new lab are likely much closer to the mean, if not below it. And if you don’t get things going on a reasonably short time scale, you will crash and burn and fail to establish yourself as a successful independent investigator.

Nevertheless, you absolutely cannot display uncontrollable frustration to your trainees. That is the kiss of death for your entire laboratory.

You need to always maintain a calm and confident demeanor, even when people are fucking up egregiously and you want to wring their necks. You can express dissatisfaction with your trainees, but it must always be in a calm and confident way.

The moment that your trainees begin to think that you are not calm and confident in your expertise and in your ability to make your lab a success, they will lose trust in you as a mentor. And once they lose trust in you, you are completely fucked.

Trainees are like dogs: they can smell fear. If you are afraid of failure, and your trainees smell your fear, you are fucked.

19 Responses to “Lab Management 101”

  1. Presumably everyone’s got their own ways of achieving (or trying for) outward calm and confidence, but what are yours? Could use some suggestions here…I for one am not improved by stepping away for five minutes (as Janus was advised)–that’s just enough time to let me amplify all my grievances and rage.

  2. Dr.J–
    I think that in stressful times reminding oneself of one’s kickass research plan and program and the awesomeness it will bring, and reminding oneself that teething troubles are inevitable and can be overcome with good strategy, should instill the correct brand of calm and confidence.
    CPP- Totally agree. I look at it this way, from the trainee’s standpoint—would you put your money in a bank where the manager looks nervous? Would you buy stock in a company whose CEO looks moody and shifty? So why would you put your career in the hands of someone less than assured? As a PI you have to be confident and be so for the right reasons.

  3. Pinus Says:

    I have been pretty pleased with myself. I can be a real pain in the ass…but so far, I have been very calm when dealing with the folks in my lab. So far, it appears to have worked…the person that I was not terribly pleased with has really turned it around..both experimentally, and in terms of intellectual engagement. Lets see if we can keep it up though!

  4. Presumably everyone’s got their own ways of achieving (or trying for) outward calm and confidence, but what are yours?

    I *am* calm and confident.

  5. bikemonkey Says:

    MFJ in lower right hand desk drawer?

  6. bikemonkey ftw!!!

  7. Complain-o-peeps Says:

    Sounds like the same strategy for dealing with toddlers. If they get the idea that you can’t control your emotions and that little things they do can make you lose your cool, then they start to feel insecure and upset.

    Hmmm, I never likened myself to a toddler before (as a graduate student or now as a postdoc), but some things are starting to make sense.

  8. tideliar Says:

    Trainees are like dogs: they can lick their own balls.

    But, a good post, and true one. Panic, fear, uncontrolled frustration: things your trainees must never see. JanusProf needs to chill, fire up the bong, and apologize. Fucking bi-polar bullshit will not help.

  9. When the PI is erratic, trainees will also start to brush off the comments, as in ‘”PI just being all crazy again just ignore hir”. Unfortunately the tag is more quickly and easily applied to the female PI’s.

  10. ApoSpouse Says:

    Our esteemed host’s observation is not limited to the lab: it’s present in every hierarchical organization.

    I don’t want to discuss whether hierarchical organization itself is or is not inherently ethical or patriarchal. Perhaps it is. Yes, fitting into supervisory positions is much harder for women, because women are more often trained to be socially submissive, and there’s much less overall social permission for women to be dominant. Be that as it may, CPP’s correspondent has assumed a hierarchical position, and those positions have a fairly clear set of expectations, limitations, and strictures which must be learned and employed. Emotional control is important, but there’s more to it.

    Displays of anger/aggression as well as fraternization are behavioral moves that establish and maintain (or undermine) dominance hierarchies and set their limits. But of course a person with positional authority already has objectively established the dominance hierarchy; anger then is useful only in the face of intentional insubordination.

    Most people do in fact want to do their jobs, and do them correctly, as best they can. In my own roles, both managerial and subordinate, I’ve consistently found that subordinates’ apparently boneheaded behavior was caused by management’s failure to offer adequate training, instruction and clear expectations. This is, sadly, mostly true of my managerial roles. I’ve never seen anyone become more competent, or even become motivated to become more competent, by being either yelled at or over-praised.

    Managing in a hierarchical structure is as much a science as physics or biology, and requires just as much study, creativity, thought and discipline as any science. There are a lot of books on management and supervision I think CPP’s friend could read to her advantage.

  11. i wonder what the guinea pigs feel like

  12. I got my masters in a lab that had an erratic PI. Once I had paper in hand, I got the fuck out of there. Even keeled beats eccentric (bat-shit crazy) any day of the week. My new PI is very calm and calculated when he addresses us whether it be to build us up or bust us down. I want a PI who acts like a PI, not a flustered and frantic trainee.

  13. Look, people are human and they’re going to lose their tempers from time to time. A PI should definitely try to keep a lid on it for all the reasons mentioned. But when the PI does lose his or her temper, the solution is not to “over-praise” the trainee – then the behavior seems unpredictable – nothing is better at instilling fear than unpredictability.

    The solution is to sit down with the trainee and say, “Listen, I’m very sorry that I lost my temper with you the other day. I feel badly about it and I shouldn’t have done that. I lost my temper because I am feeling frustrated that you folks are not showing up to group meetings consistently (or whatever it may be). I would like you to exhibit more professional behavior by showing up to group meetings on time every time. I will also exhibit more professional behavior by not blowing up at you.”

    Be honest and transparent and your trainees can forgive the occasional outburst if they a) know what it was about, and b) have assurance that it’s not going to happen again, or at least not very often.

  14. The first thing is the PI should not fall prey to manager’s syndrome: wondering if folks will show up. Set the expectations early and enforce them. If I miss lab meeting, I let my boss know ahead of time and it better be for a damn good reason (time point, waiting for an induction, profuse bleeding from the head,etc.). If I was doing what the trainees were, my PI would politely but matter of factly rip me a couple of new ones. I guess the thing is if the PI doesn’t back up there expectations, the trainees can lose respect for the PI and get away with anything.

  15. ApoSpouse Says:

    AS a manager, you don’t need to get angry with a person who misses a scheduled meeting or otherwise fails to comply with instructions. You give them a calm verbal warning the first time, a calm written warning the second time, and you fire (or transfer) them the third time. At each stage, you repeat the expectations and future consequences. It really is as simple as that.

    Excuses (like opinions) are like assholes. Everybody has one and they usually stink.

    Of course, you don’t have to be a hard-ass about everything; you shouldn’t sweat the small shit. But it is up to you as the manager to decide what’s small shit and what’s important, and balance your expectations against what’s available.

    It’s not a matter of ethics, it’s a matter of pure pragmatism: getting angry just doesn’t accomplish what a manager must accomplish.

    I don’t know what “manager’s syndrome” is. Every time I’ve been a manager, my folks always (within reason) show up to meetings on time, they hand in status reports on time, and they meet their deadlines. They know if they don’t I won’t get mad at them, I’ll fire them. You’re either here to work or you’re not here.

  16. ApoSpouse Says:

    There’s always this guy, too.

  17. Narya Says:

    The words you never wanted to hear from my best boss ever: “Help me understand [what happened].” He wasn’t going to yell or anything, but he wanted you and him to be clear about what happened and what you were going to do to make sure it didn’t happen again.

    When I worked at the bakery–where a fuckup could cost a day’s production in something–the owner’s response, in general, was, “Not every day can be a good day.” If you leave the salt out more than once, well, you’ll be doing a task where you can cost less damage, but he still wasn’t going to yell.

    Yes, I learned a fuckload from working with the two of them.

  18. queenrandom Says:

    A-fucking-men. Have seen and experienced the kiss of death in action, more times than I care to remember. It’s disastrous not only for the PI but for the students and postdocs as well; you don’t want your trainees to be weighing the question “Do I put up with this batshit crazy motherfucker until I can get a paper (if said batshit crazy motherfucker is even competent enough a lab manager to get a paper published – a big if*), or do I cut my losses and start in a new lab?” The former may win in the short term, but the latter will always win in the long term.

    *In my experience, PIs who lose their shit to their employees/students also lose their shit to HR, publication and grant specialists, secretaries, reviewers, journal editors, etc. etc. None of that aids in getting published. Additionally no trainee wants their published name associated with someone who alienates editors.

  19. BB Says:

    A lot of new PIs wait a bit before taking trainees, so the lab is settled, techs are trained and can help out, etc.

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