Dealing with tension and conflict in the lab

A busy research lab can be a challenging place to work for a variety of reasons. Science is a high pressure environment, often with looming grant or research paper deadlines, troublesome reagents, experimental failure and a high turnover of the staff. Combined, these factors can cause many kinds of strife in the workplace, here are a few examples and some of my top tips for dealing with them!

Be patient

You are not going to get on with everyone in your lab at all times. There will be times when even your closest lab friend is going to drive you up the wall by doing something as simple as using up the last of a buffer. Tensions often run high in science, and we all have our bad days, so it’s important to always try to have patience and a bit of understanding.

After 2 solid weeks of troubleshooting what should have been a relatively easy experiment which refused to cooperate, I found myself absolutely losing the plot with another lab member for overrunning their booked slot into my slot in the tissue culture hood. As I stood there giving out to them (and horrifyingly realizing at the same time that I had mistakenly booked for the next day!), I realized that I had no right to take my terrible week out on someone else. When my face finally stopped burning long enough for me to mumble an awkward apology, they cheerily replied that we’ve all been there and not to worry.

The moral of the story (besides always double checking you’re booking for the correct day!) is that in science we all get runs of bad luck, and often the accompanying bad temper. When this happens, we need to try to be patient in order to avoid generating serious conflict in the lab. It is important not to take your temper out on others and similarly, if a lab mate flies off the handle with you for no reason, try giving them a chance to realize what a plonker they’ve been before you take offence!

Be assertive

But it’s not just the odd runs of bad temper that cause conflict in the lab. Academic science can be a tough, cutthroat business and it’s usually the people who would be described as nice, and who would do a favour for anyone, who get walked over or taken advantage of.

Unfortunately the mind-set that creates great academics is not one that always considers how actions can negatively impact other people. Sometimes other lab members just genuinely don’t think about the fact that borrowing the last of a kit you were using might set you back a few days on an important experiment while you wait for new stock to come in. Or maybe they have realized that running 10 westerns all together is stopping you from running any because all the tanks are in use, but they’re being a bit cheeky and doing it anyway! For this reason, it is important early on in your PhD to learn to deal with these situations in a polite but firm way by being assertive.

The two most important things I’ve found about being assertive in the lab is to be polite and to be realistic (and a little bit selfish).

A crucial part of being workplace assertive is to remain polite at all times – even if inwardly you are ready to scream at someone, keeping a calm, polite exterior will ensure that you seem professional at all times and are taken seriously.

The other key aspect of assertiveness is to be realistic. As a (generally) nice person, I try to do favors for others and help out where I can, and often find it hard to say no to people, especially when they’ve asked me nicely.

However, sometimes people don’t realize that what they’re asking of you is more than you can provide (and sometimes they do but they ask anyway!). If someone asks to use something that you really need, don’t be afraid to say, “Sorry I’m using it” for fear of causing lab tension, it’s okay to prioritize your own work! On the other hand if you know you aren’t using it in the morning, or after hours it is helpful to let them know when they could schedule some time.  It’s also important not to overstretch yourself, if someone is asking you to do rather large favors on a regular basis, just say no! During a PhD, your project needs to come first, you need to be (a little bit) selfish about things – because if you’re not, other people will be and not only will you end up losing out, you’ll resent them for it, leading to even more tension!

Make a list

If being assertive and patient haven’t been enough (and sometimes all the patience in the world isn’t enough with a tricky coworker!), you should consider organizing a meeting to discuss the issues causing conflict in the lab.

When you’re heading in to a meeting to discuss a problem, work related or personal, being prepared with exactly what you want to say can make a huge difference to how you get your point across, which is why making a list in advance can be really helpful.

Think of the problem you want to discuss and brainstorm exactly what you feel needs to be brought up at the meeting, the points you need to make etc., then leave it alone for a few hours and come back to it. Sometimes in the immediate aftermath of a large disagreement or even a minor spat which puts you in a bad mood, you might make a bigger deal of a small point than is necessary. When you look back at it later on, you might realize that it’s something that could be mentioned briefly, but there’s no need to dwell on it.

Making and reassessing your list will help you get your priorities in order and will assist in wisely choosing which battles you want to fight! Running through your list before the meeting will also help you refine what to say, making sure you don’t include superfluous details (“She did it first” etc.) and just get the relevant information. When trying to resolve conflict in the lab, it’s important to try and detach yourself from your emotions (as much as you can) and just deal with facts; trying to defend your actions or shift the blame won’t help your case and will just make you come across as less than professional.

Suggest solutions

Having gone to your meeting prepared (list in hand!), the last thing you want is to come out feeling like issues haven’t been resolved.

If you want to see real change happen, you need to step-up your game, don’t just go to your boss with problems, offer solutions too! For each point on your list, have a counterpoint for how the conflict could be resolved.

For example, instead of “They always use up all the buffer, it’s not fair!” try “Person X frequently uses the last of communal buffer Y and never makes a fresh stock; could we agree on a rota for taking turns making that buffer up weekly?”  Or if you want to avoid naming names and creating bad feelings you could suggest the introductions of a rota to prevent the burden falling on one person.

Taking the emotion out of the problem helps you clearly get across what is causing the tension and suggesting a possible solution to deal with it takes some of the work off your PI; if they’re busy trying to get a paper in while finishing off a grant proposal the last thing they want is the extra work of having to deal with lab squabbles, help them to help you by having a solution ready.

The added bonus of this approach is that you’re more likely to get closer to the outcome you are looking for if you’re the only person suggesting ways to overcome the conflict in the lab!

Everyone has experienced some form of lab squabble, how did you deal with yours? Let us know in the comments below!

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