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  • Improve Your Lab’s Productivity by Better Delegation
  • Lacy Gaskins
Improve Your Lab’s Productivity by Better Delegation

You’re brilliant and successful, and your lab is the envy  of your peers. But you’ve gotten so busy you’re having trouble lately staying on top of all the details. Colleagues keep recommending that you delegate more to your staff, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it. Many researchers react the same way.

Still, management experts agree, it’s worth the time and effort to learn to delegate better. Your lab’s productivity will benefit, and you may save yourself from an ulcer or a heart attack down the road.

Why PIs fear delegating

  1. Control Issues

All kinds of psychological factors make delegation a learned rather than an innate behavior for some people, notes Neil Lerner, MBA, director of the Small Business Development Center at the University of Wisconsin- Madison School of Business, which offers a course in delegating. Being a bit of a control freak, for example, goes with the territory in an individual-focused field like scientific research, he says. “People who really care about what they’re doing have the right motivation,” he explains. “And wanting to be in control goes along with the personality type.”

  1. Management skill lacking?

A principal investigator himself, Lerner adds that, “a lot of times you hear people say, ‘It’s easier to do it myself because it takes time to explain, and it still won’t be done just the way I want.’ ” He wonders if that’s really the issue or if it’s actually the case that “sometimes it’s hard to move away from doing the work to managing it. Some PIs may doubt they’ve developed the skill set to manage properly.”

That’s natural, Lerner says, because even a lab of 15 or 20 people typically started out as one or a small group. “It’s the PI’s drive and heavy personal involvement that moved the lab to success,” he notes. “It’s natural to wonder if the group can do even more unless you add more personal effort. But if you want to keep moving forward, a change in behavior has to occur — and it takes time to do that.” Without trust in your own ability to be — or become — a good manager and without trust in your staff to respond to your management efforts, there’s going to be no delegating.

  1. Love showing competencies

Some people just enjoy being competent at lots of things, says Victoria McGovern, PhD, senior program officer at The Burroughs Wellcome Fund, an independent private foundation dedicated to advancing the biomedical sciences by supporting research and other scientific and educational activities. “There’s real pleasure to be gained from being good at things,” she says, “whether  it’s getting the grant or fixing the brushes that wear out on the micro-centrifuge.”You may be proud that you still have your own project at the bench, for example, or that you take care of the routine maintenance of a crucial piece of equipment. “But are you getting the most out of your days?” she asks. “Is there someone else you might pass your pet project to, someone who might get the work done well and let you move on to the next question?”

  1. Comfort in routine

And then there’s the lure of the routine. “You can get into the habit of just doing what needs doing rather than stopping to think, ‘Do I have time for this? Can someone else do this for me?’ ” McGovern explains. And that’s not only the case in labs, she emphasizes. “If you’ve been taking care of your own cars or baking 15 kinds of cookies every December since you were a teenager, it can be hard to let go of the ritual and the pleasure of those caretaking activities,” she says. “Big or small, the responsibilities mean a lot to us.”

Reasons to delegate

But that’s no reason to limit your lab’s success and threaten your own health by refusing to delegate. “For a PI, especially a relatively new one, the downside of not delegating is that you get less done,” McGovern states simply. If you’re an assistant professor aiming at tenure, for example, you have a short list of priorities: Get your science flowing and grow it into several lines over time; get your funding flowing and diversify it; be a good colleague and carry the appropriate weight in your department; and take on your share of teaching. “None of those challenges is small,” McGovern notes. “To handle them adequately, you must shed some of your research tasks through delegation. You have to build a good team, and then trust the team members to do their own jobs well.”

Thus, “whether you’re going to build a lab by starting with a technician, a grad student or a post-doc,” she says, “you’re going to have to pick someone you can train and trust.”

If you don’t delegate to this person, you’re not getting full value from what you’re paying them. Lerner stresses. “If you don’t learn to delegate, you’re not making use of the creativity, innovation and knowledge of the people on your team,” he points out. “Conversely, in a university setting, where you may be working with grad students and lab researchers who can benefit from your mentoring, those young scientists are losing out on the growth potential that your leadership offers.”

And don’t downplay the collaborative joy of working as a team, Lerner advises. “There is definitely pleasure in being able to talk about research-team accomplishments and giving everyone appropriate credit, even on research papers,” he says. “It’s the joy of knowing that your delegation and mentoring helped a younger member of the team grow and contribute meaningful accomplishments.”That’s a lot easier to do when you’ve delegated meaningful tasks to members of your staff. Also, Lerner cautions, “certainly, if you keep everything tight to the vest and put pressure on yourself to carry everything, that’s not good for your health.”

7 Steps to Improve Your Delegating Skills

How do you go about modifying the alpha-dog tendencies that got you this far and learn to delegate? It’s not at all difficult, the experts note. It just takes some commitment. Here’s what you need to consider:

  1. Make sure the goals of the lab are clear to everyone working for you — what needs to be accomplished and when.
  1. Set aside some time for seriously thinking about how you work, with a focus on productivity, McGovern urges. What you are doing with your time? Your hands? Your mental energy? With the people who work for you? “That’s not a trivial task,” she says, “and it may put some things you value onto collision courses. Right now, you’re almost certainly spending at least some of your week on things that you aren’t good at — and some of your day on things that don’t move your work forward.
  1. Select very carefully whom you delegate to, and try to match people’s skills and abilities with the tasks that you’re delegating to them so they have more chance of success. Don’t, in other words, rely only on your “impression” of the person. “I feel like I can count on her” isn’t sufficient reason to delegate a critical function to a lab assistant.
  1. Prepare the person you’re delegating. That means providing specific c desired outcomes and offering specific performance measures for getting there — and reviewing all of that with the staff member.
  1. Plan to stay involved. The task isn’t off your plate when you delegate it. Don’t mistake delegation of tasks for abdication of responsibility.
  1. Be reasonable in your delegating, and limit the size of the mess that could result from a complete “Don’t try to delegate getting tenure,” McGovern says, “or writing the grant that you absolutely need to land, or working well with the PIs in adjacent labs.”
  1. If at first you don’t delegate well … try, try “If it’s not working out, it doesn’t mean the staffer isn’t a good person to have on your team,” Lerner notes. And it certainly doesn’t mean delegation isn’t a good idea. “You may need to delegate something else to that person, or you may need to delegate the task to someone else,” he says. “Or you may need to re-examine your deadline schedule.” n
  • Lacy Gaskins

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