The Importance of Delegation for Scientists
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Every effective manager or lab head should know that they need to delegate to succeed. However, delegation for scientists is not simply doling out work to newer researchers or direct reports. In fact, everyone can delegate—not just managers! The art of delegation for scientists is a skill anyone can employ, especially in the lab.
This article looks at what delegation is, the benefits of delegation, how it should work to be effective, and how it can benefit your day-to-day lab life and career. Successful delegation is a career-building soft skill that builds confidence, trust, and authority and ultimately makes you a better scientist.
What’s Delegation for Scientists and Why Do It?
Let’s start with what delegation is decidedly not. Delegating a task or activity doesn’t just mean offloading work to other people. It certainly doesn’t mean micromanagement or abdication of responsibility. Effective delegation is so much more than this!
Merriam-Webster defines delegation as “the act of empowering to act for another”—in other words, providing others with the authority and responsibility for a task. To borrow a phrase from Kenneth Vogt, one of the hosts of Bitesize Bio’s podcast The Happy Scientist, “delegation is amplification”. When you delegate, you truly amplify your potential and that of others in a professional sense.
Empowering Yourself and Others
When you find someone who is particularly good at or enjoys an activity that is particularly challenging or time-consuming for you, you can accomplish more together and provide others with opportunities to learn, grow, and demonstrate proficiency. If you are already versed in routine lab techniques like lab cleaning and sterilizing materials, delegating these activities to an intern or student can give them development experience and free up time to focus on more complex tasks like learning to code in R.
Delegation serves the greater good. Finding others who are much more proficient at certain tasks and swapping talents leads to everyone getting more done. While it may seem that training someone on a new technique or instrument requires initial time and effort upfront, it is often an excellent investment. It enables both parties to accomplish work more productively.
Work on What’s Important to You
Delegation allows you to spend more time and effort on activities that you care about rather than those that might otherwise hold you back or keep you from accomplishing big-picture goals. By delegating activities, you’ll give yourself more ways to shine as a scientist and focus on your passions.
Become a Leader
Strong delegators are naturally viewed as good leaders, especially when faced with a daunting list of tasks that others may find intimidating. Good delegation involves making connections, critical thinking, and excellent communication skills—all signs of someone looking to lead others.
How to Delegate in the Lab
Even if you are not the lab head, there are likely activities that you can (and should) delegate. Your PI is a vested stakeholder when it comes to your time and effort since they are relying on you and delegating critical activities for the lab’s success! Below are varying parties you can delegate to.
Delegating to Someone in Your Lab
A great way of delegating to lab mates is to seek opportunities to reciprocate the favor. Everyone has varying interests and skills, and there are likely ways to offer a deal!
Perhaps you don’t know the best way to handle results in an experiment that generated bucketloads of data, but you have a colleague who works with these kinds of data all the time. Meanwhile, your colleague is looking for help with unclogging the cell cytometer in time to run a sample and has never had to troubleshoot the instrument. This is an excellent example of when two people can delegate to each other, and it’s a win–win for the whole lab.
Personality and personal interests also play a key role and provide insight into delegation for scientists. Some people enjoy hands-on activities in the lab, whereas others are driven by data analysis or making figures. Figure out what other people love to do, and consider giving them opportunities to do those things.
Delegating to Someone in Another Lab
Sometimes there’s no one in your group to whom you can delegate. However, other labs often have valuable skills and equipment that can help you get things done faster. While you might not be personally trained in a technique or have experience using specialized equipment, you might be able to identify a nearby lab that does.
Networking and reaching out to members of other labs is a great way to identify prospective individuals that would be willing to collaborate on your projects and share workloads.
Delegating Outward: Using Vendors to Your Advantage
Repetitive or time-consuming tasks are ideal candidates for delegation. In these cases, opportunities may exist for a newer trainee to perform these tasks or for new equipment that can perform the task in an automated manner. There might even be a company you can contract or outsource the work to.
Consider the case of DNA sequencing, which used to require a day’s worth of work in the lab to obtain a short sequence. Whereas it used to be the case that only trained lab technicians could execute this grueling work, now it is incredibly cheap and straightforward to mail a sample to a company like Genewiz or ACGT and get results overnight.
Another great example is ordering pre-mixed materials like protease inhibitor cocktails or media. Instead of manually mixing ingredients (especially if you have to do so regularly), you can delegate this work to a vendor, and rest assured that the product is well made.
Keep in mind that there is no substitute for understanding the purpose of each component in a ready-to-use mixture. Bitesize Bio has a wealth of resources that explain the purpose behind the materials in a variety of commonly used kits, including those to simplify DNA extraction, mammalian cell transfection, mycoplasma detection, and SDS-PAGE.
Since technology is constantly evolving, it’s increasingly likely that tedious preparation work and analyses will see increased automation and outsourcing. In some cases, you may need to consider the trade-off between extra cost and time saved carefully. However, advances in biotechnology have made what were historically expensive and complicated methods, much cheaper and accessible. Thank goodness for innovation!
Delegating Upward to Your Supervisor
A common misconception in delegation is that it cascades downward in the organizational hierarchy: managers doling out work to direct reports, graduate students giving work to undergrads, and so on. Delegating to your manager, however, is a good idea in the following circumstances:
- You are dealing with a technical challenge that you are struggling to overcome (i.e., repeatedly failed results from an experiment).
- Your team is swamped and cannot handle the entire workload temporarily.
- You are not equipped to handle the task at hand (i.e., do not have credentials to use a system).
Be clear about why you are requesting assistance when delegating upward. Requesting that your boss does work originally requested from you should not be due to simply lacking confidence or fear of making mistakes.
Overcoming Difficulties in Delegation
Of course, delegating out activities isn’t always smooth sailing! Researchers at the cutting edge of their fields often face difficulties with cutthroat competition and a strong focus on individual projects, leaving little wiggle room for helping others.
Clear and kind communication goes a long way in the world of delegating. Be sure to consider the following to ensure you have delegation success.
Call It out as a Favor
Using language that indicates an individual would be going above and beyond helps frame the request in a positive light. Adding that you’d be happy to return the support builds trust.
“You’ve got a tremendous background in coding, and it’ll save me a lot of headaches if you’re willing to take this analysis on.”
“I’m looking to get some help on this experiment so that I can focus on wrapping up my grant proposal. Would you be willing to help me over the next few weeks? I’d really appreciate it and would be happy to return the favor!”
When approaching an individual, consider their schedule and availability. Providing a range of time that an action can be completed increases the odds that they can squeeze in extra work to help you out.
“I’m planning to upload raw data for analysis every Wednesday, but the finished model doesn’t need to be built until April. Does that fit into your schedule?”
Have Clear Expectations
Providing explicit instructions on the output of a task and when it needs to be completed should be a priority whenever delegating. There’s nothing worse than asking someone to do something important for you and then not having it completed correctly or on time!
“I can send you an email with the exact timepoints and instrument parameters for reference.”
Check in Regularly
It’s essential to check in routinely to ensure that things are going to plan. If you expect a task to be finished within a month, consider touching base weekly to identify any roadblocks or concerns. Offer support throughout the process and provide resources as needed.
“Can we go over the data before our lab meeting each month?”
Give Credit Where Credit’s Due
Perhaps most importantly, you must provide feedback and give thanks to the person to whom you have delegated. Where appropriate, acknowledge and recognize publicly the help you have received and how it has aided you in completing more work. A massive misconception is that giving credit to others minimizes your respect or the value others place in you. In fact, broadcasting and promoting others’ accomplishments is a recognized characteristic of good leaders and is more likely to further your career.
What Shouldn’t You Delegate?
Of course, we can’t delegate everything to other people or labs. There are specialized tasks and activities that most others may not have the bandwidth or specialized knowledge to accomplish, and there will always be work that you specifically are expected to perform.
- Work involving systems or equipment that only select users can access. Handing out passwords is a major no-no.
- Tasks that involve delicate instruments or unsafe reagents. Inexperienced users may accidentally damage equipment or cause bodily harm if not properly trained. Check with the lab head before delegating experiments involving large financial liability or health risks.
- Tasks that take too long to explain. If a task takes three hours to explain but only two hours to perform, it doesn’t make sense to delegate it! With that said, if the task is anticipated to occur regularly, it may be worth the time investment and opportunity to expand another person’s skill set.
- Papers or documents that you author. If you delegate writing or preparing a presentation, you shouldn’t publish or share it without your review. Consider listing a co-contributor or co-author in this case.
- Very boring work. In some instances, a less experienced individual may learn from what you might have already performed hundreds of times- but if you are asking a colleague to do work on your behalf that they do not find enriching, consider an alternative.
What are your experiences delegating in the lab? Feel free to share with the Bitesize Bio community in the comments below!
Joanne Kamens. Management for Scientists: Delegating is Key. Addgene. Published February 20, 2015. Accessed November 24, 2021.
Jesse Sostrin. To Be a Great Leader, You Have to Learn How to Delegate Well. Harvard Business Review. Published October 10, 2017. Accessed November 23, 2021.
Rawzaba Alhalabi. 7 Top Reasons to Delegate in Your Workplace. Potential. Published March 31. 2017. Accessed November 24, 2021.
Paula Thompson, Ed.D. How to Delegate: Tips for Delegating Tasks at Work. Betterup. Published June 3, 2021. Accessed November 24, 2021.
Successful Delegation: Using the Power of Other People’s Help. MindTools. Accessed November 24, 2021.
David Carpenter. What is Delegation and How Does It Enhance Team Management? Lifehack. Updated December 1, 2020. Accessed November 23, 2021.
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