What Kind of Research Group Do You Want to Lead?


In the coaching program for early faculty, we talk a bit about culture creation. Recently IDEO U's Creative Confidence podcast, The Future of Work is Hybrid, featured Sacha Connor, Founder and CEO of Virtual Work Insider. Connor summed it up beautifully. Culture creation comes down to three things: policy, marketplace, and narrative. Lab manuals, even if they include behavioral expectations for civility, authorship & not stealing your bench mate's reagents, are policy documents. Policy alone cannot create culture.


Culture grows from policy by how behaviors are rewarded (the “marketplace” piece) and by the stories we tell to ourselves and about ourselves. Happy hours do not create culture. Camaraderie is not culture.


Culture in the workspace is often defined as the values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that a team uses to work together toward a common goal. It comes down to how people treat each other, listen to each other, how they share values and behave in accordance with those values.


Most of us have been in bad work/lab cultures. Bad cultures grow through inattention or intention, and sometimes a combination of the two. “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” (Gruenert and Whittaker, School Culture Rewired). Unintentional bad cultures grow from having no policy, or not enforcing it. It won’t matter how exhaustively you wrote your Lab Culture section of the manual if you don’t provide the reward and disincentive structures. Intentional bad cultures typically arise from leading—or more accurately, ruling—through fear and intimidation. Workplaces / laboratories led in a way that produces fear lay the ground for toxic environments by implicitly or explicitly rewarding bad behavior.


And this is where narrative can come in. “In this laboratory, we don’t ignore the signup sheet for the PCR machine.” “In this group, we do not perpetuate stereotypes.” And then have clear guidelines for dealing with the violators and a willingness to chuck out a bad apple who won’t honor the policy.


Lab manuals are great. I think everyone should have one for practical reasons of shared protocols and promoting reproducibility. They can also be used to set clear expectations, everything from “Do not deviate from the written protocol without discussion and documentation,” to “We speak with civility at all times.” Clear expectations are a key ingredient in effective teams, and policy documents can set the expectations. But the policy document is just the start. Creating culture takes attention.


Say it again: “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.”


Are you interested in learning more about intentional culture creation?

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