Academic Leadership – Tips for Leading a Research Team

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Should you take the same approach with everyone as a research team leader?

There are a lot of leadership models and theories out there, some of which just do not suit academics or the environment that they work in. However, Situational Leadership (SL) is a model (developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard) which has resonated a lot with delegates on our academic leadership programmes and may be useful for you to apply to your team. Let’s apply it to a traditional research group.

The model categorises people in a team into four types depending on their competence and their level of commitment. They then describe the leadership approach that should be taken for each. Using this, let’s take some examples of team members in a research team and look at which approach may suit them.

The new PhD student

The new PhD student may fall into category 1 in the model described as low competence but high commitment. They have arrived in your group full of enthusiasm but have a relatively low level of knowledge and skills compared to the rest of the group. SL suggests that you take the “directing” approach with this category where you tell them exactly what to do and how to do it. They will take up quite a bit of your time but it is worth spending this time now to ensure they have the opportunity to learn from your experience so that once they are more competent they can develop methods which suit them. The high level of enthusiasm should hopefully mean that they will be keen to follow what you are asking them to do.

The disillusioned PhD student

When I was doing my PhD, myself and friends went through a period which we described as “second year blues”. We had come through the period where our supervisors were expecting enthusiasm and commitment but it was o.k. to ask stupid questions and get things wrong and had entered the phase where we felt we should know what we were doing. Lots of us had experiments that weren’t working and sometimes it all got a bit much! SL has a category of some competence but low commitment and suggests a “coaching” approach with these people. When experiments are not working and it all gets a bit much, as a leader you may find you need to offer quite a bit of support, talking through what’s going wrong and pointing them in the right direction. This approach, although supportive and using coaching needs to still be quite directive as you need to make sure that this person gets back on track quickly and doesn’t lose their way altogether.

The disillusioned post-doc

This is similar to the one above although this person will have a higher level of competence. SL suggests that you still take a “supportive” approach but this time, you are less directive. You talk things through with the person but encourage them to make suggestions for improvement and to take the decisions. This will develop their confidence in being able to solve problems themselves next time with less help from you.

The experienced star post-doc

This post-doc is driven and highly experienced and needs much less of your support. You need make sure that they see that you value their competence and you want to make sure that you are harnessing their potential within the team. SL suggests you take a “delegating” style, perhaps putting them in charge of the day-to-day supervision of PhD students and junior post-docs.

These are just a few examples and there will be other variations which will need slightly different approaches. It is worth having a think about the people in your team, their levels of competence and commitment and how you might take different approaches with each of them. Of course, the same person can also fit into several categories at the same time – for instance they could be very experienced in one technique but have low competence in something they are just learning. They may also change category depending on what else is going on. The important thing is to realise that you don’t need to just use one style of leadership but that you will get the best from your team if you can adapt to the situation and meet them where they are.

As always, it is important to set clear expectations and it is worth discussing with the person the approach that you will take. For example, “I think you will probably pick this up quickly due to experience, but as it is a new technique for you, I will be giving you quite a bit of direction to start with so that you can then work on it independently once you get the hang of it. Does that sound o.k.?


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