• Hour glass icon129 minutes : 12 minutes reading | 117 minutes video

Managing postdocs

As a manager of researchers you fulfil many roles, from project lead to fundraiser, from budget manager to communications specialist. 

For your postdoc(s) your two fundamental roles are as a manager and leader. It is only through your effective leadership and management that your research project will be a success and your postdoc will feel supported in their role and their career development. 

On this page we explore leadership and management styles, how you can lead high-performing teams, the role that communication plays and how you can empower your staff and support their engagement with their work.  

Leadership and management

As a PI you are both a leader (you are leading the research project and staff on the project) and a manager (you are managing one or more members of staff). However, whilst academics are frequently referred to as research leaders, many don’t view themselves as managers. For some projects the roles will be filled by different people, for other projects it’s the same person. 

Poor leadership and management can result in unmotivated and stressed staff and, as an outcome, an unsuccessful project (Van Noorden 2018). The provision of leadership and management training is patchy across the higher education sector, although its importance is increasingly being recognised (Kwok 2018; Mahtani 2018; Sapienza 2005).

In a survey of 3,200 researchers, 60% felt that more support for mentoring and management would produce higher-quality research (Van Noorden 2018), whilst limited training for PIs in these skills is seen as a barrier to healthier academic working environments (Maestre 2019). 

“One of the biggest surprises of my PI career is how difficult the management part is. I would love to have had some training.”

Prof Radovan Šebesta, Comenius University, quoted in Van Noorden 2018. 

So, what are leadership and management? Whilst there is some overlap between them, the table below contains common terms associated with each. 

Terms associated with leadership Terms associated with management 
Higher level Organisation
Builds trust Logistics
Good communicator Coordination 
Motivational Authority
Open to other ideasHelps people take ownership of sub-sets of work to empower them 
IntegritySetting objectives
Decisiveness Making people feel confident and trusted 
InspirationOperationalising the vision
Having a vision
Has a sense of the bigger picture and the context in which working

All research institutions should have their own Leadership Commitment, as a PI its worth finding yours and understanding the behaviours expected of you as a leader. 

Leadership models

In the short video below organisational developer Hilary Clarke explores a few different leadership and management models. 

There are many different leadership and management models. Each has its own pros and cons and you can choose to focus on the ones that work best for your own leadership style. However, some leadership models, such as the ‘executive’ model and the ‘competitive’ model, have been labelled as toxic for a healthy academic culture, discouraging staff and opening the door for misconduct (Wood 2012).

Leadership styles

Leaders can be found at all levels of an organisation, and everyone has a leader within them. We all have different styles of leadership, with four broad styles of leadership defined as: Democratic leadership, Laissez faire leadership, Autocratic leadership and Coaching leadership. 

In the brief video below career coach Denise Chilton explores these different leadership styles and their impact on your staff.

What is your natural style of leadership? What type of leader are you managed by and what type of leader would be your ideal manager? 

As a leader and manager, the ability to flex your own style is one of the most important techniques you can learn. Just as we have different leadership styles, we also have our own preferred ways of being led and managed. Use the style that works best for the situation and person you’re managing. 

Perhaps the most important theme to remember, regardless of leadership model or style, is that leadership happens between people (Binney et al. 2012). Your postdoc will be more likely to respond and connect with you if you bring yourself to your leadership (Mahtani 2108). Similarly, when Prosper asked PIs for their advice to other PIs managing their first postdoc, communicating with and collaborating with your postdoc were two of the most common responses.  

‘Good [research] leaders are most frequently described as caring and compassionate (in contrast to the expected description of technically competent).’

Sapienza 2005, reporting findings of a survey of research staff. 

You may be a research leader, but you are also serving the needs of your team to help them to be the best that they can be (Kwok 2018).  

Leading a high-performing team

A team is more than 1 person working towards a common goal; a team can consist of 2 people or 20 or more. 

Whilst you gained your position as PI through your research skills, in your role as a PI you’ll use these skills far less and much of your time will be taken up with the task of leadership and management. 

‘This can be tricky to come to terms with, but as the leader of the group, your main responsibility is to support your team.’

Tregoning and McDermott 2020. 

Instead of doing it yourself, to produce the best research as a PI you have to support your team to produce their best research for you. 

High-performing teams: 

  • Produce good results 
  • Are easier to manage 
  • Get on with things 
  • Are loyal 
  • Want to do well 
  • Result in happy staff and a happy working environment 
  • Enable staff to develop and grow 
  • Have team members that feel a sense of security in their position 
  • Are not competitive within the team 

High-performing teams have a common sense of purpose, a clear understanding of objectives and are aware of what their individual roles are. 

High-performing teams are not competitive within the team itself: team members may have complimentary skills, mindsets and styles, have mutual respect and trust for each other, help each other become better and are willing to share knowledge and expertise. 

In the short video below organisational developer Hilary Clarke explores how you can build and sustain your team and evaluate your success. 


Effective communication is at the heart of all good leadership and management. 

“The communication of experiences between senior and junior researchers is dismal. They live almost in separate worlds.”

Dr Gary McDowell, quoted in Van Noorden 2018. 

As with leadership and management styles, we all communicate in different ways and if you manage a postdoc with a different communication style it can help to jump into their world.

Paying attention to how your postdoc communicates with you and the language they use – they might give away their own style. 

Consider the communication needs of your postdoc. Do they respond better to the big picture or to little details? Are they logical thinkers or empathetic feelers? Do they think as they’re talking or consider their answer before speaking? 

Communication styles 

As career coach Denise Chilton explains in the brief video below, someone’s communication style can impact how they respond to your communication. 

The meaning of a piece of communication is the response we get in return. How something is received.

In the video below, organisational developer Hilary Clarke explains how communication is at the heart of good leadership and management, and explores how what we communicate can be interpreted, distorted and filtered due to the language we use, our body language and tone, the receiver's own preferred communication style, their past experiences, their values and beliefs and their meta-programs.

Intercultural communication 

Communication between people with different cultural backgrounds can also lead to intercultural incidents. In the brief video below, intercultural coach Sally Walker discusses practical communication tips for meetings and emails in multicultural settings.

Much communication is non-verbal; we can’t not communicate. 

“Even the roll of the eyes can disempower someone.”

Hilary Clarke, Organisational Developer, University of Liverpool. 

We aren’t always aware of how what we communicate comes across. If a postdoc in your team is acting in a way that isn’t appropriate, do they know what they’re doing and the impact it’s having on you or others within the team? It’s only once you turn the mirror and let them know that they have the choice to change their behaviour. 

Do you have a mechanism in place for your team to turn the mirror for you? In a survey of 3,200 researchers, junior group members said they wanted more opportunities to feedback to their PIs (Van Noorden 2018). 

When was the last time you asked your researchers for feedback?  

Empowering your postdocs 

Engaged employees are happier, healthier and produce better results. Considering the levels of engagement of your postdoc on a regular basis can help you to support them.

Is your postdoc:

  • Engaged – a cheerleader who works with a passion to move the project forwards. 
  • Not engaged – a sleepwalker who is simply going through the motions. Try to understand why they have lost their spark and if there is anything you can do to help. 
  • Actively disengaged – a vampire who is acting out their unhappiness and impacting the rest of your team. Try to understand why this is happening, help them to see the impact they are having and support them. 

In the short video below Organisational Developer Hilary Clarke discusses how you can use the questions in Gallup’s engagement hierarchy with your staff to help them be more engaged and what to do with a vampire. 

It’s normal for everyone to struggle occasionally. We all encounter problems or challenges and feel stuck.   

Engagement tools for your postdoc 

As a manager you can help your postdoc to overcome the barrier facing them with some simple tools: 

In the video below, Organisational Developer Hilary Clarke explains how you can use these tools in more detail. 

Further resources

For a great guide on how to give feedback (including a downloadable difficult conversation planning tool) check out Feedback that doesn't sting from The Auditorium.


Binney, G., Williams, C. & Wilke, G. 2012. Living leadership: A practical guide for ordinary heroes. Financial Times Publishing. 

Kwok, R. 2018. How lab heads can learn to lead. Nature 557, 457-459. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-05156-3  

Maestre F.T. 2019 Ten simple rules towards healthier research labs. PLoS Comput Biol 15(4). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006914   

Mahtani, K.R. 2018. What makes an academic leader? Nuffield Department of Primary Health Sciences, University of Oxford. Accessed 16/06/2023: https://www.phc.ox.ac.uk/about/staff-stories/what-makes-an-academic-leader 

Sapienza, A.M. 2005. From the inside: scientists’ own experience of good (and bad) management. R&D Management, 35, 5, 473-482. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9310.2005.00404.x  

Tregoning, J.S. and McDermott, J.E. 2020 Ten simple rules to becoming a principal investigator. PLoS Comput Biol 16(2) https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1007448   

Van Noorden, R. 2018. Leadership problems in the lab. Nature, 577, 294-296. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-05143-8  

Wood, C. 2012. When lab leaders take too much control. Nature, 491, 785–786. https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7426-785a  

Refine image Refine Cross
Filter by: Unsure what to search for? Click here
130 minutes
Flash badge View notice(s)