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How to Motivate and Delegate - recap of TOPX expert meeting

Written by: Alexandra Cloherty

You’re at an exciting point in your career - you have great technical expertise, which means that your hard work is yielding exciting results. Eventually, this leads to a promotion, and you’ll now have a team of your own to manage. But suddenly, you find yourself needing new, different skills as a manager. Instead of pipetting precisely, you now need to motivate your team members and effectively delegate work to them, instead of doing it all yourself.

Tuesday’s TOPX Expert meeting aimed to explore this question of how to motivate and delegate effectively, in the context of Life Sciences careers. Annemie Webers, CEO and founder of Career & Live, explained that at work, everybody has three basic needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Let’s dive into each of them in turn.

In short, we need to feel like we are doing a good job when we are at work. Managers have an important role to play in this, and creating feelings of competence is an important component in motivating team members. Janneke Meulenberg, Managing Director of MeiraGTx Netherlands BV, reflected that she was lucky early in her career to have bosses who supported her feelings of competence. Even at the very beginning of her career, her supervisors included her in many different aspects of the projects on which she worked. She was involved in maintaining industry collaborations, included at the tables around which data were presented and discussed, and tasked with writing patents. “I was included in all parts of the projects,” Janneke explains. “I was given trust.” This encouragement to take up new tasks and build up projects from scratch, and the feeling of being trusted to get things done, motivated her.

Katka Franke, principle scientist at Frame Therapeutics, commented that she is now transitioning from a period in her career when she did everything herself, to a role in which she must divide tasks and motivate people to help them find their own niches and their own parts of the project. This means losing some perfectionistic or “control freak” tendencies. For example, as a manager you must learn to trust that although other people may do the job differently, they might also do the job better than you could have imagined. Janneke agreed, reflecting that in her early career, “We were ambitious and naive, but we got the trust from the board to do it... And it helped quite a bit that we were young and naïve. Experience is important but sometimes it also blocks you from taking chances and taking risks that are actually beneficial.”

Christel Menet, CSO at Confo Therapeutics, shared that the higher she climbs up the career ladder, the more she gets her motivation from her team, as well as from seeing them grow and develop. She also joked that the more senior you become, the less likely it is that you have a manager to congratulate you and reinforce your feelings of competence. Smiling, Christel said, “Perhaps there is a little lesson in that – you can also tell your superiors if you think they did something really well, and compliment upwards!”

In general, people don’t enjoy being micromanaged. People need to feel like they have control over what they do at work. Janneke concurred, saying that building trust and giving autonomy are key elements of creating a powerful team. “At some point you have to let loose – you can’t have full control over everything. The others might do it differently from how you would do it, but in the end they might reach the same goal. And in the end if you want to grow in a managerial, C-level position, you can’t do everything yourself. You have to trust people and throw them in the deep. Try to perceive their growth as your growth: the better they become the better the company becomes. And if it goes wrong, take it as a lesson learned and not as a failure.”

Annemie explained that there are two different kinds of trust that are important to build at work, namely cognitive trust and emotional trust. At work, cognitive trust means being convinced that others can do their job, whereas emotional trust refers more to trusting colleagues simply as people. Both kinds of trust are important in making managers feel safe in allowing employees to autonomously take on delegated tasks.

“Trust is the glue that connects a team,” as Annemie said.

Christel agreed, and commented that, “You need to show people that you trust them when you delegate. You can’t micromanage – delegating but micromanaging behind the scenes erodes the trust and motivation of your workers.” Indeed, as a scientist you may have to delegate tasks that you enjoy doing yourself, but giving those tasks to others will give them the opportunity to grow - and give you time to do all of the other tasks assigned to you. It is difficult at first, but represents an important mindset shift. “Then,” Christel explained, “You must show that, not only do you trust them with the delegated task, but you also give ownership. They need to feel that they did it, that they own it. This will keep them motivated and give them opportunity to grow.” However, it is also important to keep checking in with employees if they are able to handle all of the delegated tasks. “Make sure that by delegating, you don’t put too much weight on others,” Christel advised.

For many workers, much of the joy in working comes from meaningful relationships and interactions with other people at the workplace. Building emotional trust is an important aspect in fostering these feelings of relatedness. This is one aspect of motivation and delegation that many attendees of the TOPX Meeting on 25th January agreed had become more difficult after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Annemie explained that in her organization, where the majority of communication is virtual, ‘digital body language’ is key for building connectivity and trust. “What is implicit in ‘normal’ body language needs to be explicit in our digital body language,” Annemie clarified, advising that, when working online or in hybrid scenarios, it is particularly important to write clearly and read carefully, in order to avoid tricky misunderstandings that can easily arise via digital communication.

Christel agreed that some aspects of relatedness were lost post-pandemic, commenting that the casual exchange of ideas over coffee is something that she still misses during remote work. Some tips for building relatedness while working online or in a hybrid model include:

1. Organizing daily or weekly online coffee meetups to stay in touch with your colleagues about matters other than work
2. Checking in informally and one-on-one to get to know your colleagues better – remember that online conversations don’t always have to be during a fixed meeting or in a group environment
3. Ask your team members how they are doing at the beginning of meetings or at the beginning of each day – and really listen to their answers, and give them time to speak
4. Openly discuss mutual goals with your team, so that they feel involved in bigger-picture goal setting
5. During regular meetings, ask each attendee to share a photo describing something that is important to them or new to them at the moment, so that everybody can get to know each other on a deeper level.

Myself, I am still a PhD candidate at the beginning of my career. However, this meeting gave me some ideas about how I can grow in motivating and delegating to, for example, the students that I work with. I also gained some insight into the challenges that my own managers might face in motivating and delegating. I will definitely be taking some of these insights, tips, and tricks back to work with me!

About TOPX
TOPX is a network for female professionals in Life Sciences seeking career advancement in industry or academia. See for more information about TOPX and the TOPX meetings.

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