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Five tips to improve your research culture

Five tips to improve your research culture

With principal investigators facing work, life, mental health and career challenges, time is often a limiting factor. But creating a healthy environment helps all achieve and feel well. 

A typical principal investigator (PI) must overcome many challenges and has a great deal to learn. The experience was accurately portrayed in a recent Twitter post with the caption “Transitioning from a post-doc fellowship to PI of a lab…” In it, the “PI” sets off across a muddy terrain to reach a stable foothold with unexpected and humorous results. Reading the comments, the clip appears to resonate well with academics and researchers alike. 

The example reflects other transitions as well, including tenure, promotion, and taking on further organizational and research leadership responsibilities. On top of balancing various roles, along with one’s health and wellbeing, PIs must regularly figure out what research questions to pursue, how to win highly competitive funding, and manage their research career, as well as how to build and sustain a healthy team. There is a growing need to support and equip researchers with skills to shape their environments.

At the heart of this challenge is research culture and team leadership. Research culture encompasses the behaviours, values, expectations, attitudes, and norms of a given community. Culture emerges from many factors: past history, explicit and implicit expectations, values and cultural norms as well as the relational dynamics and power systems. That said, each individual can and does impact their culture in subtle and overt ways. If we want to create a research ecosystem that is diverse, healthy, and more inclusive, we must recognize that every person in research can make a positive difference. 

Lately, funders and policy makers are paying increasing attention to this agenda. Principal investigators are well placed to help and have much to gain from it. If you are on your way to being a PI or already in the role, the five practical tips below will help you reflect on, explore, and begin to proactively manage a healthier research culture. 

“If we want to create a research ecosystem that is diverse, healthy, and more inclusive, we must recognize that every person in research can make a positive difference.”

Five practical tips for a healthier research culture

1. Get curious about the research culture you have now

Imagine an unexpected visitor staying in your group for a week. What would this person see? For example, what is the nature of interactions between different members of your group? What is and isn’t talked about? What tends to get rewarded and celebrated? Who succeeds here and who tends to struggle? How is help given? How are errors and learning shared? Are people tense or on edge? When a junior researcher speaks or presents their work, do senior researchers show up and listen? Your answers to these questions will help reveal more about the culture you have. From this place, you can more easily consider what would be the best scenario and how to bridge the current set up with this vision. 

2. Establish your key values 

What makes values so useful is that they guide behaviour and culture. For example, if a given team values results, some people may interpret this to mean “results at all cost.” But when we value teamwork and results, the way we get to the finish line matters. Decide on a small number of values that are key to your team’s collective and individual success and wellbeing. Consult your team. Here are some ideas for what could be valued: trust, honesty, excellence, teamwork, healthy debate, or even conflict that is effectively resolved. Talk about your values with the team and use them to guide how everyone works and behaves. 

3. Focus on fostering good communication

Results have inherent value but sometimes they can come at a cost. This could be health, well-being, work quality, motivation, and teamwork. Pay special attention to how you and others communicate. How are people supported and guided? What happens if someone does something wrong? Is everyone invited to speak and is their view fully considered? Is there enough compassion and healthy curiosity in the system? How is conflict handled and resolved? What sort of career support can one expect to receive at the start, mid-way through and towards one’s next career step? 

One of the most practical ways to improve communications is by asking people about what they need, how they feel, what they notice, and what would be better. Your job as a leader is to open and guide these conversations. Sharing your views is important but their greatest effect often comes when they are shared at the end of these conversations, along with a mutually agreed action plan. 

4. Major in curiosity over criticism

Avoid confusing rigour with criticism however much you intend to help. Uninvited negative evaluation risks damaging people’s confidence, motivation, and morale. This can quickly turn a healthy culture into one where fear inhibits everyone’s full potential. To counter this, adopt the following positive intention when speaking with others and holding meetings: “I am here to discover and learn.” Seek to first understand rather than jump to premature conclusions. Treat conversations as a worthwhile time investment as clear, mutual understanding is foundational to healthy results and relationships. 

5. Celebrate and be curious about difference

One of the best way to nurture and support diversity is to be curious and welcome difference. If you speak less and inquire about other people’s experience, needs, and desires, you will be better placed to ensure everyone’s success. Along the way you will develop genuine trust and respect and inspire others to follow your lead. The possibility to make this better exists in every interaction with much room to get things wrong and learn. Through conscious positive intention, regular reflection, and feedback, you will create the sort of culture that delivers top results and where everyone thrives. 

Is all this worth it? Absolutely! 

The ideas here can be worked into one-to-one meetings, regular group discussions, annual retreats, and appraisals, as well as countless informal interactions. Start small and you will feel and notice a big difference in little time. Your team and visitors will too.


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