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Mind Matters: Managing Conflict in the Lab

When psychologist Alan Leshner, now Chief Executive Officer of the AAAS was director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), he used to quip that space was the last frontier. No, not outer space. Office space. At NIMH, there was never enough space, Leshner was suggesting, and this was a constant source of bickering among peers and complaints to supervisors.

Bring any group of dedicated and intense people like scientists together and conflicts will likely emerge, and not just over scientific issues. Resources, responsibilities, intellectual ownership, and personality conflicts are a few common sources of laboratory tension.

People who need people

Alumni of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowship programs grappled with these same issues, reports Jennifer Beth Donovan of HHMI. While HHMI surveys revealed that trainees felt well-prepared scientifically for their next research position, they were less sanguine about their ability to run a lab, a problem common among pre/postdoctoral researchers. One self-perceived deficit that was high on their list was conflict management. So, in 2002, the Institute partnered with the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund (BWF) to design a lab management course focused on teaching scientists the "people skills" they would need in the future.

One of the participants, Hopi Hoekstra, was a postdoc, and now she is an assistant professor of biology at the University of California at San Diego. In her lab, she studies rodents to see how genetic variation is generated and maintained in natural populations. Like most scientists, her work isn't limited to rats and mice; she must also work with people. Hoekstra had attended the HHMI course the second time it was offered and then was invited back as a guest lecturer. She spoke to trainees about her experience with conflict management and resolution.

"Labs by definition are composed of a diverse set of individuals with different experiences, backgrounds, perspectives, and personalities," says Hoekstra "So conflict will arise."

Scientists have feelings too

Hoekstra rattles off a few situations that can lead to conflict:

  • Conflicts frequently arise over authorship--the inclusion and order of authors on scientific papers.

  • If projects and the role of trainees are not clearly defined, an environment of competition--instead of cooperation--can result.

  • People get upset when they feel that someone in the lab isn't doing their share of the work.

Sometimes even small affronts set the stage for conflict. For example, a graduate student from Austria was delighted when he found a wonderful illustration, part of a larger figure, to use in a grant application. He made a mental note to use the larger figure in future proposals. He was very upset when he learned that a postdoc in the same lab suddenly came up with the same idea after reviewing the application. "It's just not nice," says the junior trainee. "That's not the way it should go in science. If reviewers accidentally rediscover something, that's another story."

Another research trainee, working in an ecotoxicological lab in Portugal, says that conflict often occurs when trainees share the same limited resources. She says it is common for them to bicker over lab equipment and scheduling.

"The research environment is unique, particularly in lab environments as opposed to clinical settings," says Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq., founder of ELI, an Atlanta, Georgia, firm that specializes in training solutions for workplace and fair employment issues. "Individuals who are successful because of their analytical abilities may not have the interpersonal experience to communicate effectively and prevent or diffuse conflict. Combined with the dynamics of the hierarchical scientific workplace, problems can quickly escalate," he says.

Strategies to minimize conflict

There are several ways trainees can avert or minimize conflict in the lab:

Talk about it. "Communication is key," says Hoekstra. "Trainees need to communicate with each other and communicate with the PI." She tries to foster these interactions through weekly lab meetings where trainees exchange information on progress and learn to see themselves as members of a team rather than competitors. If formal meetings don't take place often enough for your taste, begin dialogues with your peers or your supervisor to discuss workplace issues that are of concern to you. Be an active listener so you can hear the other side.

Plan ahead. It's easier to avoid conflicts than to assuage hurt feelings and anger once they arise. "As a lab, we try to anticipate and discuss problems and come up with solutions together," she says. For example, if there is a coveted new piece of equipment, everyone participates in developing the schedule for its use and maintenance. "It limits complaints later on," she says. And think before you act. If you think you might be stepping on a colleague's toes, ask.

Don't let problems fester. "Conflicts need to be addressed sooner rather than later to avoid letting problems affect morale and productivity," says Hoekstra. You don't want the behavior to escalate. If you know something is wrong or someone is upset, bring it out into the open, she says. This isn't always easy to do. You need to choose the right words and deliver them at an appropriate time when they can be heard. If you are uncomfortable addressing the situation on your own, ask for advice or the help of your supervisor.

The seminal role of the supervisor

Managers can help minimize conflict, too, and the place to start is in the hiring process. "Choose your lab members wisely. Personality traits can be just as important as a person's academic track record," says Hoekstra. To test the muddy personality waters, managers may want to involve other trainees in interviews of new hires.

When new trainees are selected, managers need to take the time necessary to explain the structure of the organization and its scientific goals so that roles are clear and the potential for conflict is minimized. "An incredible amount of time, money and energy can be wasted if trainees don't have a clear set of experiments, projects, and goals laid out from the beginning," says Hoekstra. If you are a trainee and expectations aren't clear, make efforts to clarify them with a supervisor.

Supervisors need to be approachable so that trainees feel comfortable enough to ask questions, express feelings, or simply complain. Someone needs to be available to listen before feelings spiral out of control and morale plummets, says Hoekstra. Supervisors also bear responsibility for making sure that trainees feel they are being treated fairly. If a supervisor is perceived as having favorites, it can have a devastating effect on productivity, akin to sibling rivalry in a dysfunctional family.

"Focus on issues not personalities," says John Baldoni, an Ann Arbor, Michigan, management consultant and author of Great Motivation Secrets of Great Leaders (McGraw-Hill, 2005). "Conflict over science and issues can be beneficial to productivity and development. Conflict over working styles and personalities can be destructive." Managing conflict is an important but unpleasant part of the job of being a scientist, one with no simple solutions, remarks Hoekstra. "Every trainee and every situation is different."


  • Learn more about the HHMI/BWF course on Next Wave

  • Download the free HHMI/BWF publication, Making the Right Moves

Does it ever seem like your research has gone haywire? You can't recruit the subjects you need for your study---or a box of important reagents gets lost in the mail---or your mentor unexpectedly takes a prestigious job at NIH and abandons you in the lurch.

For an upcoming column in Mind Matters, write and tell me what types of uncontrollable setbacks you've encountered during your training? What tips can you provide to your peers so they can avoid similar problems or move past them more quickly? Write to me at:

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