Welcome to LeafSpring, an anonymized advice blog by a group of scientists on the tenure track. Send your questions to leafspring.labcarpentry@gmail.com

Sep 08, 2016

How do I foster a supportive lab family?

Dear Leafspring,

Some of the best times I had as a trainee were when I felt part of a ‘lab family’. How do I foster a fun, social and supportive atmosphere in my own year-old, small (me + 2 grad students), but growing (2 more students next year, hopefully a postdoc) group without coming across as inappropriate/overly friendly/trying to force things?

Yours, Trying to be professional

P.S. This was inspired by this blog post: http://lettersfromgradschool.org/dont-check-your-optimism-at-the-door/

Dear TTBP,

We had a number of thoughts on thinking about a lab as a family. While this seems like a nice idea, we had some concerns that a family might not be precisely the right metaphor. Perhaps thinking of a lab as a team, which still has camaraderie and is acting with a shared purpose, would be a better fit. This puts you in the role of a team captain and/or coach. So how can you encourage teambuilding without harming your ability to lead?

There are a number of steps that we recommend to make sure that your social and work environments are places that are safe and friendly.

  • Keep lab events low- or alcohol free.
  • Post a code of conduct and make it clear that you take it seriously.
  • This isn't always possible depending on circumstances, but many events - particularly those outside of work hours - should be open to family, friends and partners.
  • Make it clear when events are optional and make sure that most events outside of work hours are optional.

There are some group-building opportunities that work well for small groups:

  • For social outings, find partner labs that work on similar things (or have similar attitudes) and invite both groups. This may involve some administrative headaches - e.g. PIs taking turns paying or splitting costs fractionally.
  • Cultivate a social media presence (a shared blog or some such) so that people can present a team perspective.
  • Make it clear that members of the lab and partners/families are a part of the team.
  • Try to get together regularly for social interactions during work hours. Some of us do a 'fika' and others the bonus.ly service for peer recognition to schedule during-work social interactions.
  • Organize events that go beyond the confines of the lab. Perhaps lab outings for hikes, etc. Make it clear that you're looking for events that more people can participate in, and consider whether or not everyone can participate in what you're planning.

Here are some social outings that we've done before:

  • Happy hour - PI pays for appetizers and one drink for each individual (non-transferrable).
  • Lunch at a nearby restaurant.
  • Group hike.
  • Group paintball. This can sting - make sure people know what they are getting into.
  • A board game night. PI may or may not provide a 'grant' for food ($20 cash) if the lab requests it for a game night once a month. Consider carefully whether or not you want to attend. Not attending may give the team time to bond without your presence.
  • Group attendance at a local sports team game.
  • Picnic lunch at a local park.

Finally we have a few communication recommendations:

  • Keep an in-lab list that has some non-work rooms for chatting. Some of us use Slack for this which provides a #random channel, while others use email.
  • Be aware of authority barriers and decide what you want to do about them. Do you want to keep an edge of formality going, or do you want to lower those barriers? It will depend on where the barriers and authority levels stand now and where you want them to be :).
  • Discuss your own job with your team. Outline your thoughts on grants and papers and discuss your larger concerns and worries. You don't have to be an impervious leader standing against the world. You can be human too.
  • When you have to provide negative performance feedback, do so in a formal as opposed to social setting. Make sure that you communicate that the discussion is solely about work and not personal.

So TTBP, we believe thinking of the group as a team instead of a family is a more useful metaphor. We hope these ideas help you create an environment that brings your team together.

Sincerely, Leafspring