5 Ways Top Principal Investigators Motivate Their Team to Deliver

Academia is one of the most unique often informal, workplace settings one can imagine. To boot, it is still considered one of the last remaining forms of apprenticeship in any field. Sure a business or law firm might have the odd intern, but no work environment has the mix of students, quasi-students (postdocs), managers and bosses as that of an academic lab. Consequently, it can be challenging, though not impossible, to institute traditional metrics of business performance into the group dynamic. Nevertheless, academic labs are still gauged by productivity (publications and funding), and with these five traditional tools, PIs can ensure their teams perform and deliver at the highest standards.


1.  Mandatory group meetings

A successful laboratory institutes consistent, compulsory, non-negotiable group meetings.  There is no tool more essential for maximizing staff performance than the venerable group meeting.  You can exercise creativity and judgment in how you organize them—according to project, rotating students every few weeks, broken up into small sub-groups where everyone can speak at each session or having students give a full seminar every few weeks on research progress.  The important thing is that students and postdocs have the opportunity to share ideas, troubleshoot, know what fellow team members are working on and offer input.

2.  Improved communication strategy

In order for a team to consistently deliver, communication lines with the Principal Investigator must be transparent and available.  Even if you have a hands-off approach, or are not physically present in the lab, being able to exchange emails with staff, see real-time results and offer your advice are crucial for moving projects along and getting results.  Try implementing laboratory management software that allows students to share results, protocols and experiments as they are performed.  Students and postdocs that feel they can get clear, rapid instructions and feedback from their boss will stay on task, experience less frustration and consequently, their production will go up.

3.  A chain of command

When I was a graduate student at a prestigious California research institute, our famous (and often absent) PI instituted a clever hierarchy, where students were paired with postdocs and other visiting professors, and the lab manager had absolute power in his absence to enforce rules, schedule meetings and oversee day-to-day lab operations. Especially for busy professors or large labs, this is essential.  You don’t want productivity to be at a standstill in your absence either because students don’t know who to go to for direction or troubleshooting or because of the temptation for the mice to play when the cat is away.  With the advent of technology like Skype and GoToMeeting, you can even have surrogates schedule group meeting updates to maintain communication continuity.

4.  Goal-setting and evaluations

In a typical business, employees are expected to set periodic goals and are evaluated for that performance at least once or twice a year.  Often, their salaries and employment are dependent on meeting those goals.  In an academic lab, goals are nebulous and open-ended:  publish papers, graduate, pass qualifying exam, get a postdoctoral or professor position.  Because of the unpredictable nature of research, timelines are rarely associated rigidly with these goals.  But that doesn’t mean that PIs can’t set smaller-scale goals and student evaluations (at the end of each semester, for example).  This would serve to see that all graduate students and postdocs are meeting expectations in a timely manner, are completing research projects according to a timeline that is in accordance with their career expectations and to troubleshoot if a project is clearly not working.  Surprisingly, a lot of students continue to be saddled with bad projects because they show up to group meeting week after week, but never have the opportunity to discuss overall progress with their advisor until a milestone like a committee meeting.

5.  Team building and positive reinforcement

Recent research out of Harvard University suggests that physical proximity, face time and down time spent relaxing and just “hanging out” actually leads to increased research productivity.  The researchers dubbed this the “water cooler effect.”  Sometimes, in order to get the most out of your team, you need to loosen the reigns, as counter-intuitive as it might seem.  Arrange Friday happy hours or pizza delivery.  Celebrate group birthdays. Have group barbeques and semi-monthly team bonding activities such as bowling or karaoke.  A closer, happier, more relaxed and satisfied group may just end up being a more productive group.

PIs and group managers, do you feel our tips are helpful?  Have any suggestions to add?  Please let us know in our comment section below.  We’d love to hear from you!