• Hour glass icon120 minutes : 12 minutes reading | 108 minutes video

Leadership and management for the first-time PI

Session details

Date: 16 June 2023

A session on leadership and management led by organisational developer Hilary Clarke 

Speaker at this session

  • Hilary Clarke, organisational developer, University of Liverpool. 

Session overview

As a Principal Investigator you may find yourself responsible for hiring and managing a postdoctoral researcher for the first time. But what does managing a member of staff require? How do you balance the needs of your research project with the needs of your employee? What steps can you take to help ensure that your postdoc feels supported and you feel confident in their capabilities? And how can you be a motivational and inspiring research leader? 

This virtual session provided an overview of ideas and concepts to be aware of for managing researchers, leading and supporting them to be the best they can be. 

Topics covered included:

  • The differences between leadership and management and the benefits of developing your own abilities as a leader and manager. 
  • Approaches for how you can employ leadership and management techniques effectively with your research staff. 
  • The key elements that need to be in place to develop a high performing team.

Leadership and management 

This part of the session explored the differences and overlaps between leadership and management, the behaviours associated with each and some leadership models you can use.

Shared learnings

  • Managers are associated with terms like: organisation, logistics, coordination, authority, helps people take ownership of sub-sets of work to empower them, setting objectives, making people feel confident and trusted, operationalising the vision (compared to necessarily having the vision). But poor management and in particular micro-management can result in stress for both the employee and the manager. 
  • Leaders are associated with terms like: higher level, build trust, good communicator, motivational, make you feel comfortable, safe, respectable, open to other ideas, open to criticism, creating psychological safety, decisiveness, inspiration, vision, sense of big picture as well as the culture and context in which working. But poor leadership can make staff feel uninspired or unmotivated. 
  • There is overlap between leadership and management, for some projects the roles will be filled by different people, for other projects it’s the same person. 
  • Leaders can be found at every level of every organisation. 
  • There are lots of different leadership and management models, all with pros and cons (for example thought leadership, situational leadership, convener-led leadership). Choose the one that works best for you. 
  • All research institutions should have their own Leadership Commitment, as a PI it’s worth finding yours and understanding the behaviours expected of you as a leader. 
  • You don’t need to be charismatic to be a good leader – leadership should be done for the right reasons and the greater good of your organisation or specific research project, not for selfish reasons. There are plenty of charismatic leaders but they need to also have integrity to be a good leader. 
  • John Adair’s Action Centred Leadership Model suggests that leaders need to consider three critical roles: supporting task completion, monitoring individuals and responding to their needs, and monitoring their team and ensuring synergy within it. 
  • Transformational/Engaging Leadership Model says that good leaders are transformational, valuing and empowering their people, transforming them into leaders themselves. 
  • Conflict isn’t always a bad thing – suppressing how we feel can simmer and cause additional issues. A team with real psychological safety is able to share if there is something that can create conflict – there’s a trusting environment to admit to mistakes or say what needs to be said. 

Leading a high-performing team 

This part of the session explored what makes a high-performing team, how to create and sustain and high performing team and measuring team performance.

Shared learnings

  • Teams are more than one person working towards a common goal. A team can be two people or a team can be 20 or more. 
  • High-performing teams understand what they’re trying to achieve and why, what their individual roles are to achieve their goals, and are committed to one another’s personal growth. High-performing teams are not competitive within the team and have complimentary skills and mindset, helping each other to go from good to great.  
  • High-performing teams have: a common sense of purpose, a clear understanding of objectives, mutual respect and trust, willingness to share knowledge and expertise, a range of skills and abilities, a range of styles, willingness to speak openly, celebration and recognition of achievements.  
  • The benefits of leading and managing a high-performing team are: good results, they’re easier to manage, they get on with things, they don’t want to leave you, they want to do well, there’s a happy team and work environment, team members are able to grow and feel a sense of security in their position.
  • Seven steps for creating and sustaining a team:
    • Orientation – ensure each new member of the team is clear on the reasons why they are there. 
    • Build trust. 
    • Ensure goals are clear. 
    • Have a clear plan for how the team will achieve their goals. 
    • Help your team to know who does what, when and where within the team 
    • Consider the traits of high-performing teams and reflect on your own team. Are there areas you can build on and how would you go about that? 
    • Renewal – reflect and revisit the previous steps to ensure you and your team continue to be clear on why you are all there. Recognise and celebrate achievements. 
  • When measuring team performance make sure you have a clear action plan, that your team understand the goals and the expectations on themselves, on you and on others in the team. Consider from the start how you will evaluate success. 
  • Remember that you might not be the person who someone on your team wants to receive help from directly, but you can ask what they need and what you can do to get them the support they need. 

The importance of effective communication 

This part of the session examined how effective communication is at the heart of all good leadership and management. 

Shared learnings

  • If we can’t effectively communicate then all the leadership and management abilities can mean nothing.  
  • We all communicate in different ways. If you manage someone who’s a different style from you then you have jump into their world. Think about the words that they use when they talk to you as they might inadvertently give away their preferred style: visual (‘how does that look?’), auditory (‘how does that sound?’), kinaesthetic (‘how does that feel?’), auditory-digital (‘does that make sense?’).  
  • People have different ways of thinking: ‘big picture’ people value the over-arching information) whilst ‘little chunker’ people value the details. We communicate in our style but as managers it can help to think about who we are communicating with and what their needs are.  

  • The meaning of a piece of communication is the response we get. This is because how it’s received, interpreted, filtered and then responded to is individual to the person receiving it. The neurolinguistic programming model of communication proports that as an external event reaches us (we hear something, for example), we either delete it, generalise it or put it through out internal filters, which are influenced by our memories, the language we use, our attitudes, decisions we’ve made, our values and beliefs (including self-limiting beliefs), and our meta-programs.  
  • Consider the type of language your team uses. Is it ‘towards’ or ‘away from’ language (for example, I want to get healthy vs. I don’t want to be unhealthy). As a manager you can help your team understand and reframe the language that they use. 
  • Most communication is sub-conscious, be aware of your tonality and your body language. We cannot not communicate – even the roll of someone’s eyes can disempower someone. 
  • The Johari window consists of the public self (what’s known to you and others), private self (known to you only), unknown self (known to no one – very deep seated within sub-conscious), blind self/blind spot (what you don’t know you’re sending out but other people can see). If someone in your team is acting in a way that isn’t great, do they know what they’re doing and do they know the impact it’s having? If they don’t know, then you have to forgive them for it as they don’t know. Once they know and you’ve turned the mirror, then they have choices (can do, can’t do, will do, won’t do).  

Empowering your staff 

This part of the session explored how you can help to empower your postdocs when they feel stuck. 

Shared learnings

  • The Dilts model of neurological levels of change help you help your staff to identify where they are struggling and at what level (environment, behaviour, skills and knowledge, values and belief, identity, spirituality). Once you can identify the level of the barrier, you can then help them as a manager to overcome the issue.  

  • The circle of concern and circle of influence can help you to help your staff to proactively identify what issues or concerns they can do something about and then help to prioritise which to do first. It provides a structure for a conversation and is a tool that can empower people to shift their energy usage to the things they can do something about. 
  • When faced with a challenge, Paul McGee’s 7 S.U.M.O. (Stop, Understand what’s going on, Move On) questions can help: 
    • Where is this issue on a scale of 1-10? 
    • How important will this be in 6 months’ time? 
    • Is my response appropriate and effective?  
    • How can I influence or improve the situation? 
    • What can I learn from this? 
    • What will I do differently next time? 
    • What can I find that’s positive in this situation? 

Supporting wellbeing 

This part of the session examined the importance of wellbeing, particularly ensuring you look after your own wellbeing so you can look after others.

Shared learnings

  • Put your own oxygen mask on first. Sometimes it’s easy to forget as a leader and a manager to pay attention to your own wellbeing and that won’t leave you in a position to look after someone else’s wellbeing. 
  • Consider your ongoing development, professional resilience, wellbeing and physical health. 
  • Recognise small wins.

Supporting staff engagement

This part of the session explored what you can do to when faced with disengaged staff to help support them to become reengaged with their work. 

Shared learnings

  • Engaged employees are happier, healthier and produce better results. 
  • You can use the questions in Gallup’s engagement hierarchy with your staff to find issues they’re having and ways to help them be more engaged. 
  • Staff can be categorised as cheerleader, sleepwalker and vampire: 
    • Cheerleaders work with a passion, drive innovation and move the team forwards. Some cheerleaders are obvious, others are ‘silent cheerleaders’ – still passionate, motivated and supportive but quietly getting on with things. 
    • Sleepwalkers are going through the motions, have lost their energy and spark. Try to understand why someone is sleepwalking in their role and whether there’s anything you can do to help. 
    • Vampires are actively disengaged, acting out their unhappiness and impacting their co-workers. Try and understand why this is happening, help them to see the impact they are having and support them. Don’t write off your vampire, deal with them. They might not realise they’re doing it and they could be turning others towards vampirism. They might also become your biggest cheerleader if you show concern and that you care and help them get back on track. 

Further resources

Leadership Ethos includes a useful Leadership Gauge. You can find further information here: https://leadershipethos.org

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