Nothing can disrupt the smooth running of lab-animal experiments like the negative attitude of one team member, and the biggest mistake a principal investigator can make is not addressing it.
“Most PIs don’t realize how destructive that behavior can be. It can bring down the entire team,” says Maryrose Franko, PhD, Senior Program Officer, Graduate Science Education, Office of Grants and Special Programs, at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md.
She was project manager for two institute publications: Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Post-docs and New Faculty and the companion book — Training Scientists to Make the Right Moves.
She recommends this four step approach to dealing with negativity and the fallout that may ensue from it.
Investigation: The first step is to investigate. Find out who’s involved and what’s going on. Is it a closely knit animal-lab staff banding together against someone, or is the negative energy coming from a single person? How is it being manifested? Is there rudeness or condescension, or is one person being overly critical of assignments or other staff? Has there been evidence of poor attendance, incomplete work, verbal outbursts, or an overall sour mood? Are these behaviors new or ongoing? What has the effect been on the overall mood in the lab?
Don’t be tempted to jump into action before you have all the facts, and do consult your facility’s human resources office for guidance from the beginning. If a single person is the source of the problem, maintain his or her status as an active team member while you continue your investigation. Perhaps you can offer some extra research time in the library or the opportunity for an assignment they can do on their own. Providing this breathing room might be the best thing you can do until all background information is out on the table.
Conversation: The second step is to have a conversation to discuss the facts and address the root causes of the negative behaviors. Schedule this conversation for a private meeting between you and the staff member at a time and place where distractions can be minimized.
It is important to focus on behavior rather than personal attacks. For example, instead of starting your conversation by saying, “Jim, your attitude really stinks lately. You’ve been lazy and neglectful of your work, and everyone’s sick of it,” a much less confrontational and more supportive approach might be “Jim, I notice that you seem tense around the lab lately and you have been having a hard time keeping up with your work. Is there a problem we can discuss?”
This is the time to give the person a chance to tell their story. Listen carefully, pay attention to body language, and let them finish without interruption. Take notes if feel you need them. You may discover the person has health problems or difficulties with a spouse or child. Perhaps they are demoralized because they have hit a wall in their own work, or they’re having difficulty completing assignments because they are overwhelmed by another class or project.
Don’t judge, and don’t minimize either the situation or any distress your team member may display. Telling them, “You’re just upset over nothing,” will not be as helpful as, “I hear what you’re saying,” or “Yes, go on.” Finally, restate the story to make sure that you have a good understanding of all the details.
Taking Action: When both PI and lab-animal staff member are clear on the source of the negative attitudes, the next step is to take action on the identified problems. Set it up like any project, with specific, realistic, and measurable goals that you both agree to and an action plan that describes specific steps that will be taken. Attach a timeline, a means of feedback and your plan for re-evaluation.
Goals and action plans will vary depending on the specific problem and on the person involved. An established team member with a good work history who is going through a temporary rough patch may be handled differently than someone who has not carried his share of the work, has misused lab resources, or who has been nasty or condescending to others.
But in all cases take the opportunity to review the expectations and responsibilities of the staff member’s position. If things like attendance, not following proper procedures or poor interpersonal relations are at issue, you have the authority as PI to work the original job expectations into the goals and action plan. Personal problems, on the other hand, may be beyond any PI’s ability to control. But creative goal-setting and action planning may provide a temporary reshuffling of a schedule or responsibilities that can allow the team member to deal with the personal challenges at the root of their negative behaviors.
Follow-up: Follow-up is crucial to the ultimate success of the proc Meet with the team member at the agreed-upon time to discuss: Has our plan been effective? How is the team member feeling? Do we see improvement in the original attitude or behavior? Where should we go from here?
At this point the goals and plan can be tweaked if necessary, next steps created, and more feedback sessions scheduled until everyone agrees that a satisfactory result has been achieved. And most important, make sure that the human-resources department is kept up to-date on the details of your meetings as well as your course of action.
Sometimes, in spite of your best efforts, the negativity may be impossible to overcome.
Before termination, though, consider that unresolved negative attitudes or behaviors may be symptoms of other dissatisfactions that can’t be addressed within your environment. What is motivating or energizing this person? Are you really able to provide for them? Might they more fully realize their ambition in a different setting or position?
When appropriate, the best final course of action may be to provide a thoughtful referral to another facility that would be a better match. And by turning your negative into someone else’s positive, everyone wins. n