Conflict is a fact of life. Scientists should find ways to manage it in the lab, says Benjamin Tsang
Wherever you are in research, chances are you’ll encounter some degree of lab conflict during your career.
Lab conflicts occur for all sorts of reasons — lab members can disagree, disrupt projects, or generally dislike one another. Understandably, it’s not something researchers like to discuss, but avoiding tackling this problem head-on can easily turn a lab upside down if people are not actively working together to ensure a healthy work environment.
It’s not uncommon for me to hear from other researchers about their own lab issues. Problems with lab mates, rumours, and poor chemistry (not that chemistry) are more prevalent than most realize. In some instances, individuals can even fight over resources, ideas, and space. Ultimately, lab conflicts are the result of interpersonal relationships, and those involved must take the responsibility to solve them.
As I near the end of my undergraduate career, I’ve learned a lot about the social aspects of a research environment. A few years ago, I was naïve and inexperienced — I lacked the initiative to interact with others and was often scared to approach those I was uncomfortable with due to my junior status. Since then, I’ve learned to resolve issues through self-reflection, looking at the bigger picture, and making it less about myself and more about others.
Nine times out of ten, lab conflicts stem from a lack of proper communication and insensitivity towards others who work in the same environment as you. In my experience, being transparent and openly communicating with one another is the way to go. If you’re uncomfortable, make yourself heard in a professional way. Be open about your troubles, but don’t talk behind others’ backs. If someone irritates you, be civil and have the initiative to express your concerns without losing your temper. It works both ways — ask colleagues if there’s any way you can improve your own behaviour. Regardless of who you’re having troubles with, whether they be your superior, or someone junior, you should never be afraid of having an honest and receptive dialogue with those you see.
Setting yourself up for success in a lab through positive social interactions is crucial. I have known people who have kept to themselves for the entire duration of their project in fear of offending others (myself included). And while it’s true that you will probably succeed in avoiding most conflicts, the lab will eventually become dull and stagnant. You’ll likely end up being the person people forget about during lab meetings because you were too busy trying to stay out of everyone’s way.
Instead, be aware of yourself and those around you. Keep in mind that we all have individual behaviours, and sometimes, amidst all the work we do, it becomes second nature to find others frustrating before we have the chance to know them personally.
Being able to understand others’ habits and work style is part of establishing a good lab environment and mitigating lab conflicts. If you are able to recognize and accept the personal differences of those you work with, it can go a long way in helping foster mutually beneficial relationships.
Try to develop personal strategies that will allow you to be more open and receptive to others in a way that is most comfortable for you. I suggest spending time away from work with your fellow lab mates to give them a chance to get to know you. Who knows, perhaps you’ll make a friend or two along the way!
At the end of the day, the mixture of dealing with research and people can often become tiring and stressful. Take a step back and reset, and always remember that doing science is a team effort.
Benjamin Tsang is an undergraduate Laboratory Manager in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. Get in touch on Google Scholar.