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Why Are Your Lab Members So Slow?

Posted in Leadership, and Productivity

One of the hardest problems that PIs contend with is the lab member who is inexplicably slow. Experiments don’t seem to get done at all, or they get done one at a time when there is time to run them in parallel.

Before you give up or force them to leave, you should determine whether your expectations are fair. It’s natural for a PI to expect her lab members to be as productive as they were in their own training days. However, that is also an unfair expectation. You were probably a better lab trainee than most of the people you will ever have in your lab; you met the high standards that enabled you to become a research professor. There are 7.4 billion flavors of people in the world. Why should you expect anyone to be just like you?

Assuming that your expectations are fair, how do you diagnose and possibly treat slowness in a lab member? I’m going to suggest a checklist of questions to pursue, either by asking the person, observing their behavior, or asking other people who work with this person.

1) Is slowness due to a lack of knowledge of methods? Are they less trained than you thought they were? If so, are they reluctant to ask for training?

2) Is slowness due to lack of understanding of how to experiment pragmatically? Are they repeating their experiments too many times, due to fear of failure? Do they believe that they can only pursue one line of experiment at a time, when you know that they could be testing several approaches simultaneously? Have they failed to grasp organizational principles involved with setting in motion many different tasks?

3) Do they have attentional issues or cognitive problems that limit their ability to envision experiments or juggle tasks?

4) Are they incapable of doing what you expect because they are fearful of making their own decisions?

5) Do they have persistent personal problems or mood disorders that make it difficult for them to care about their work or to focus?

You can assess the first two causes fairly easily, simply by observing them or asking them questions. With respect to the last three potential causes, you might be able to test for them by considering whether there have been times when this person performed their work quickly and efficiently. If that is the case, you can rule out cognitive and attentional issues as the sole cause. To test whether they are fearful about taking responsibility, you can watch their behavior when you ask them to tell you which of various strategies to pursue. If you observe evidence of fear, or you see other situations where they don’t take responsibility for decisions when most people would, you may have isolated a factor.

As far as personal problems or mood disorders are concerned, sometimes a caring conversation will help you determine whether these factors are in play. If they have recently lost a relationship, sometimes a well-timed vacation or sabbatical (paid or unpaid) may help them to pull together. If you expect mood disorders and they trust you, you might suggest that they get counseling. If mood disorders are evident, you may have to adjust their work setting or how you interact with them if you believe they can still do a good job in the lab.

There are no magic answers for these problems, and some of these factors may appear together. However, by knowing the causes of slowness you can train them, accommodate them, or make the difficult decision about whether they should leave. In all cases, careful attention and compassion is the way to go.