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I have a biomedical lab. There are graduate students who don't do their work. Instead, both of them spend most of their time talking (not about their research). They also complain a lot and make a negative environment for others so other people do not want to join the lab. What do I do? I am up at night worrying about it. There are other good students in the lab who do work.

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    Are you their advisor? If you have authority over them then perhaps talk to them. Get to know what they don't like about the work. Explain things better. Set some goals they should catch by X date. Give them other tasks, etc. Find ways to motivate them. Why did you hire them in the first place?
    – cconsta1
    Jun 29, 2023 at 11:41
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    I have a lab -- does this mean you are the lab's director? Does it mean the grad students report to you? Does it mean you set the rules about who gets to use the lab, when, where, and how?
    – henning
    Jun 29, 2023 at 13:43
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    Is there a reason that "You fire their arses" isn't on your radar?
    – Valorum
    Jun 29, 2023 at 21:20
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    This is a very underspecified question. Students chatting is not a bad thing by itself. You claim that they are complaining, but we cannot assess whether they should "suck it up" without knowing what they are complaints are about. Jun 30, 2023 at 1:13
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    Yes- I'm the lab director. All the work done is bench research. I have a project planner for goals but most often goals aren't meant, which is typical for science so it's a little bit of a moving target. Employees get assessments but grad students do not. When I go in the lab, all I see is them chatting and rarely see them working. I will admit I have a hard time telling them their performance is not up to par. I don't want to be mean/nasty- many of these kids are dealing with depression and anxiety. But I also feel I am bein walked all over.
    – MamaD
    Jun 30, 2023 at 11:47

7 Answers 7

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This is a great question. A critical task for anyone running a lab is keeping up team morale and the environment from turning toxic. It's a never ending task. And you are right to worry about it, as the situation can deteriorate into a negative filter, in which good people move away and only the complainers stay.

I'll make some recommendations, in order of escalation. But a few caveats before that:

The first thing to do is a little bit of introspection. Ask all students about their complaints. Perhaps some of the complaints are legitimate and the issues are bothering all students, but only a few are sitting around complaining. As the lab leader, it's your responsibility to address any and all valid complaints.

Second, be aware that many people (myself included) engage in intellectual work by cycling through intense concentration and intense diversion. We work for 3 hours without breaks, then recharge by breaking off the concentration with unrelated tasks for 15-30m. This can include chatting, browsing the Internet, etc. Make sure it's not that you are only catching them in the diversion part of their cycle. Pit bosses don't motivate academics.

Third, recognize that academics complain like it's a sport. Myself, I log 3 complaints every morning before having coffee.

However, if you actually have your ear on the lab floor and you know for sure that all legitimate complaints are taken care of, then these are some strategies:

One colleague of mine has two sets of grad student offices, one near the lab, one in the basement. He moves toxic people to the basement. I'll just say that the method works.

Another colleague is very hands-on, modeling positive behavior, countering toxic behavior and complaints with positive behavior and talk: having coffee in the break room every morning and listening to people's concerns, fixing any issues as early as possible, having a weekly lab lunch, etc. Nobody likes unfairness, and your other grad students might take it to themselves to tell the complainers, "hey man, why don't you shut up and get some work done?"

You can always address the complainers directly by asking if anything is wrong. They'll deny it. Just take their denial at face value, but the cognitive dissonance might make them change their behavior.

You should avoid trying to counter their negativity with negativity (scolding, passive-aggressive emails, nagging, etc.) It doesn't work.

Finally, the nuclear option if nothing else works: presumably these people are not getting anything done. If they are interrupting the work of other students, it's your responsibility to protect the other students. Write the problematic students a warning for lack of academic progress. At the third warning, fire them (check your institution's policies about the necessary steps, it probably won't involve HR, but it will probably involve more than a few administrators.) Do it for the sake of your good students.

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    Maybe OP should consult HR to make sure they follow the correct procedure before firing them. Jun 29, 2023 at 15:17
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    Your ratio of 3 hours of intense work to 15-30 min of break is very hard-working. The proportion of intense work can be significantly lower and people still get a reasonable amount of work done and get decent phds at the end. Of course if there is too little hard work they won't get a phd but the point where it gets problematic is hard to judge.
    – quarague
    Jun 30, 2023 at 9:28
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    This is extremely helpful. I will make more of an effort to sit and have coffee in the fellow room, join them for lunch. This way I can hear what is being said. I did overhear them being nasty to an undergrad a couple of days ago and came in and said something and told them they made him feel bad. The grad students and undergrad talked and they are good now. And you are right- I remember complaining about my advisor but today I think he is the best!
    – MamaD
    Jun 30, 2023 at 11:53
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    Candidates sometimes ask me before joining my group how many hours of work I expect. I told them, if you can do everything to move productively towards results in 2 hours on Monday morning and slack off the rest of the week, that's good enough for me. It's very, very rare, but there are these cases. Of course, they join, and, of course, they work very hard. Never tell off for chatting, but monitor with some consistency that they make progress overall and, if not, how to mitigate that. Jun 30, 2023 at 14:45
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    @cheery.beach7701 a coffee machine is mandatory for any academic team
    – D Duck
    Jun 30, 2023 at 20:15
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Top three answers are spot on. The only things I would add are:

  1. Document everything. You need to have a file for each individual grad student (at least the trouble makers). If they complain, cause trouble, or when you talk to them seeking resolution etc. you need to immediately document. The reason is this: should you have to fire them, or seriously reprimand them, you better be able to show a pattern of behavior on their part, and an effort by you, to resolve it. This is without a doubt the most important protection you can have. Lawsuits can be filed, both against the university and you personally.

  2. It doesn’t matter if you are principle investigator, or the PIs assistant. You are an authority figure. Me personally, it’s the assistants to the PIs, directors, etc. that really have the most power. If whoever is your boss doesn’t allow you this authority, or undermines you, that is the problem—and in that case, they are dumping this on you without granting you authority nor their help. That isn’t just and you should be held in a much higher regard.

  3. I suspect moral is quite low. This is not because you are lacking. It happens everywhere. When people don’t know exactly what the hierarchy is, and they don’t meet with the “leaders” frequently and aren’t told what their role and responsibilities are, they begin to feel neglected. They feel like they are going to fail and the negativity over flows. Regular meetings (ie: every week, every day—or whenever, regardless of what is going on) are pitfall. It’s usually a bad idea to have regular meetings, especially if those meetings are only informative, as in you are only providing them information. However, many labs have so much to cover that daily meetings are a must. So, try to provide the information they need in emails, postings on the white boards, hand outs, etc. This will allow you to cut straight to the important aspects at meetings, specifically hearing their progress, sharing ideas and providing feedback.
    At first, I would have regular meetings, every morning and every evening. Set a tone. Let them know this is the way it is. They are kids. They won’t like being called kids, but they are. They aren’t hardened experienced adults like you. In the meetings, tell them the goals for the morning/day/week. Make them specifically say what they are doing to meet said goals, where they are, and if they are having difficulties. This way, everyone in lab knows what others are doing. After all, it’s every grad students responsibility to make sure they do everything in their power to help their colleagues be successful. If one is sick or away, others can step in. Once they catch the tempo and are a smooth running machine, cut back in the meetings.

Above all else, do not ever let them push you around.

And if someone complains, your response should be, “How do you propose to fix this?” If they don’t have an answer, show them the door and tell them to not complain again unless they have a reasonable solution to the problem. They aren’t undergrads anymore and you expect them to begin acting like it.

Good luck.

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    Thank you- i have been doing biweekly meetings with a project planner. But I will increase the frequency of this as you said. The hard working students are fine with biweekly but the other obviously need it more often. You say not to let them push me around. I am having trouble with this. The two problem students have very strong personalities. They lash out at me when I point out problems with their behavior. The two students are also best friends and gang up on everyone else. I worked as a postdoc in a lab in which the advisor was very nasty. So, I try hard not to be like that.
    – MamaD
    Jun 30, 2023 at 12:04
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    Every day two meetings is too much. I can see daily meetings, but not twice a day. Keep them short and sweet. Jun 30, 2023 at 14:51
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In addition to @cheery.beach’s suggestion you can jointly set their weekly goals and track the progress closely by having them present in the weekly meeting. Usually just walking through the lab at multiple points during the day makes the students more likely to focus on their work. One on one meeting to listen to their grievances would also be helpful. But the bottom line is either they don’t have enough work that they enjoy. This is an easier problem to solve. If they don’t like field or the lab at all it’s better to just share maybe they don’t want to spend their whole life in the area they don’t enjoy and ask them to find other opportunities

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    "I've been told..." - by whom? And with what reasoning? Jun 30, 2023 at 14:49
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    @MamaD "...after earning their PhD..." sounds like it's guaranteed, just kill time, wait it out and voila! you get one. Hmm... Is that the way it should be? "...if they leave, I've been told no students will ever want to work with me again". There will always be stories, rumors, etc. But it sounds like the other students would be relieved, for them it would be a happy ending and that would be the narrative. As hard as it may be, you must find a way to stop their perception that you just come and plow through paperwork and they can generate the atmosphere they like.
    – uhoh
    Jul 1, 2023 at 0:23
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    Love it! Thank you!
    – MamaD
    Jul 1, 2023 at 19:26
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    Second what @uhoh said. Each item of work should have a clear owner, a deliverable, and a due data. And remember that "as soon as possible" is not a date.
    – bubba
    Jul 2, 2023 at 12:36
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    Just one more thought. Sometimes letting bad student go actually makes the whole lab more productive. There are times when hard working students get demotivated by seeing that colleagues are not working without any repercussions.
    – Anuj
    Jul 2, 2023 at 16:21
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This sucks, but reassured that you are not the first one to face this situation. The bad news is that this will not fix itself. Don't make the mistake of waiting too long before addressing issues, idly hoping things would just magically clear up. They won't. Negativity and toxicity spread and fester and if you are losing sleep over it, that's a telltale sign that something needs to happen and unfortunately as the PI it is your job to step in.

If you have not yet done so, then you are probably dreading it or are at a loss what to do. In that case, first seek advice. Talk to colleagues, or HR, or anyone else you think can help you out here. Then at least you will go in feeling you are not just winging it. Also sit down by yourself, and look at the situation from every angle.

Then go and talk to your people. Up to you how you want to do that.

You might opt for a group setting, and call in everyone to address this - but this will only work if you feel confident and in the lead (which you are, but may not feel like). You could consider having a third party present, but this needs to be someone who has experience with these group dynamics.

You could opt for an e-mail to the lab expressing your concern (not about specific people obviously but about the atmosphere in general) and announcing that you will address this with everyone 1-on-1 in the upcoming weeks. Then it's out in the open and people can prepare (and so can you), but it might also result in gossip and different stories going around because you are not talking with everyone at once.

What is your relationship with these two toxic people like? How often do you speak to them 1-on-1? Can you have coffee with them and tell them you get the impression that they are unhappy and complain a lot and maybe this will allow them to open up on you?

Alternatively, do you have one person in your lab whom you trust who might fill you in on what is going on? Don't make your problem their problem, but sometimes it helps to get an idea.

Whatever you end up doing, prepare yourself and remain calm (which can be the hardest thing) during these interactions. Thank people for sharing their perspectives. Do something with the input, and keep the lines of communication open. Also be aware that this is a process, not a quick fix and something that you continually need to pay attention to (maybe not to the extent of your weekly lunches colleague but more than you are doing now). And finally, be aware that there might be the possibility that someone might end up leaving the lab if they are not happy. This too will pass and it comes with the job. You've got this and over time you will get more experienced and better at dealing with these things.

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  • I think it is a great idea to address this in a group setting- I can ask the director of graduate studies to join me. It is two "mean girls" who are good friends and they gang up and are mean to the students that are harder workers. I have tried to address the problems with them and they lash out at me and then make me out as the bad guy. I was told if I ask them to leave the lab I will never get another graduate student again because they all talk.
    – MamaD
    Jun 30, 2023 at 11:56
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    @MamaD: They will not just attack you! Their bad behaviour towards you (their superior) has shown you that they will attack others even worse. You have to be firm and tell them to stop or face consequences. You must stop listening to people who tell you to suffer and to let your other good students suffer "because [otherwise] they all talk". That makes no sense whatsoever; all the good students would be so happy, and other good students would be happy to join too! Only the bad ones won't, but why on earth would you want them?
    – user21820
    Jun 30, 2023 at 13:34
  • Don't let yourself be bullied. Even more so: do not let them bully other students. Preventing this is your job. Be factual, precise and parsimonious in speech, but make clear that attacking others is an absolute no-no. If they attack you, tell them to formulate their complaint in writing and that you will have a look into whether there is merit. Do not accept verbal complaints. Writing only. Jun 30, 2023 at 14:49
  • I was told if I ask them to leave the lab I will never get another graduate student again because they all talk. This is absurd. Are you running a lab or a theater troupe? Good grad students are hard to find for sure, but grad students in general? Please. I'll bet that if you fire those two you'll have replacements within a week.
    – Cheery
    Jun 30, 2023 at 18:46
  • "I was told if I ask them to leave the lab I will never get another graduate student again because they all talk." This is not true. Yes, people will talk, but two bullies will not dictate your future nor the reputation of your lab. You need to take action and in the long run you will not regret doing so, as difficult as things may be right now. I also like Captain Emacs suggestion to get stuff in writing. That always helps and they will probably also tone it down a notch in that case, which may even help you get some usual facts out that you may miss in their verbal canon fire.
    – BioBrains
    Jul 1, 2023 at 16:25
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I will separate the issue into different aspects.

You seem to have too much of a "laissez faire" attitude in your lab. This is possible with a team of extremely high morale and it is possible to develop such team spirit, but it is a long process to get there, especially from where you start. Clearly, it does not work in your lab at this stage. You have to pull in the reins.

Because of your experience with a nasty lab leader, you do not want to be like them, so you are ready to err on the opposite end of the spectrum. But a too permissive attitude can be as eroding (though for different reasons) as a too rigid/nasty one. There is a fundamental difference between nasty and strict, which is often confused.

In fact, the key to success in a difficult environment is strictness, but fairness. This is the magic combination. You can afford to be strict if you are very balanced and fair. Any hard measure you take that is supported by healthy reasoning is less hard. People will get used to it and if you are predictable (not a pushover, just consistent in how you handle things), your life will become much easier.

Your problem is that your "problem children" already know your weaknesses and triggers. They have sensed what they perceive as your weakness, and you have now to retrain them to understand that compassion and friendliness is not weakness. This will be a major issue to fix. For now, accept that compassion and friendliness have to take a back seat. They can be in the back of your mind for the future, but they are not your allies in the moment.

Your problem children will probably not admit to what they do and they may skirt the issue when confronted directly, so I suspect, just sitting down with them and having a polite professional conversation to find out if they have a point is probably no longer (or never was) an option. If you think it is, you can try this as a first step to get things under control. Right now, it looks like the time for that has long passed (if it was ever there).

So, you need to start by rebuilding your reputation from scratch. Set the new ground rules. If they attack you as a person, make clear that this is what they do ("you just insulted me"). They are more likely than not to deny it, but if the attack is personal, insist that it is and that this is not an option and not acceptable, either, strictly no excuses. It's most effective if you do it very dispassionately, as if for a third party that you do not care about (think as if you were defending some neighbour from gossip which you see, but never talked to; that it happens to be yourself is of no consequence here). Importantly, establish their personal attack as a fact of the conversation. People like that do not like to be nailed down, as the fogginess of their grievance is their main tool to camouflage their agenda.

Explain that they are free to express any valid grievance in writing to you; explain also that you will try to take it seriously and address it if possible, mitigate its disadvantages if it is not. Sometimes, this is not possible at all, in which case, you tell them that they will have to live with the constraints. Your person, however, is not up for discussion. If they persist, you get up, say, "when you are again prepared to have a constructive and respectful discussion, we can continue." and leave.

I am not sure who threatens to cut you off from students if you fire them. This is something you have to find out. More likely than not, this is a bluff. However, if there is someone in the department that actually threatened you with this, find out from the upper echelons what your disciplinary options are with these candidates. Do not fear them talking to other students - the students that will be discouraged are the ones that you do not want to have on board, either. Others will like the fact that you have your group under control.

Scientifically, you can discuss goals with all your students, including them. But I would not give them substantially more time than to others. First, it is not a good investment, second, it is unfair to the others. You will, however, have to plan their agenda in the background, to more extent, so that you are meticulously prepared when you meet them. Meticulous preparation and indisputable competence is the strongest weapon against such people.

Good luck!

Summary:

  1. build yourself into a situation where you distinguish between actionable/valid criticism and ad hominem. Accept the first, reject the second.
  2. develop a dispassionate persona
  3. develop a stricter, but always fair and predictable persona.
  4. build up a more stringent cycle of planning and monitoring; as well as clearer intermediate targets (papers, posters, presentations)
  5. learn what your formal options are if you continued being trolled by these disruptors
  6. build up your competence and preparation levels for meetings with the problem candidates
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  • In addition to all of this, a lab meeting where you discuss rules and guidelines for a lab. Discuss (as a group) what makes a lab function well and what makes it function poorly. Discuss the role of bad apples in killing morale. There was actually a great segment on NPR we have used in my classes on the effect of bad apples in groups!
    – Dawn
    Jun 30, 2023 at 23:24
  • My colleague who I've known for 10 years said the same thing- they don't respect me. Thank you so much for the detailed actions I can take. I have copied these and will implement them. Have you thought of writing a book?
    – MamaD
    Jul 1, 2023 at 19:46
  • @MamaD They may not respect you, but it doesn't matter. They are entitled to their opinion about you, and you are entitled to ignore it. Once you do, it will likely upset them, because with this they lose control over you. You, on the other hand, play the professional's card: When you open the options to voice valid issues, you force a choice upon them. They can become more professional to everyone's benefit, or they choose to remain stuck in their unproductive mindset. Their choice, now. And, thanks for the nice suggestion, but the drops of advice I can contribute are not enough for a book. Jul 2, 2023 at 14:35
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    Thank you for basically tell me to "suck it up". I do appreciate it. You are right- I will have to deal with people no matter what my job is. Things are better- the key is to know in my head what my rules are and "dispassionately" stand for them. This way the students don't feel they can push me around. For example, I asked a grad student last week to help a tech with a project- she said she would only do it if she got a stipend increase . I told her, in my lab, we do service for others and there will be no stipend increase. she accepted it and helped the tech out.
    – MamaD
    Jul 25, 2023 at 11:16
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    Thank you so much for the advice- it really helped me get out of feeling really down about my job.
    – MamaD
    Jul 25, 2023 at 11:16
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These are students, not children. Take this as a teaching opportunity. If you feel their behavior is inappropriate tell them this and teach them why, listen to their concerns and set expectations for the future. Following that if their behavior continues you can ask them to continue their work in an environment they find more suitable to their needs.

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You already have some great answers here, but reading through them I don't see mention of "motivational interviewing" - an effective method (anchored on listening and reinforcing more than lecturing) for building trust, eliciting goals, reflecting on behavior, and helping the other person develop/reinforce behaviors & strategies aligned with those goals.

As a lab PI, I have used this method (initially unconsciously, based on experience as a physician), but then in a more informed way after seeing the mature literature on this topic.

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  • CAn you recommend a book I could read about this? Thank you!
    – MamaD
    Jul 7, 2023 at 12:20

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