Motivating Laboratory Staff

Practical tips to help your employees find meaning in their work

Sedef Yenice, PhD
Published:Aug 31, 2019
|7 min read
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No matter what it is that we are doing, we have to have the proper motivation if we are going to succeed.1 This requirement applies not only to our individual pursuits, but also to laboratory management.

Of all the functions a laboratory manager performs, motivating team members is arguably the most complex. This is due, in part, to the fact that what motivates people changes constantly. For example, research suggests that as employees’ incomes increase, money becomes less of a motivator. And as employees get older, interesting work becomes a greater motivator.

Motivation is tricky and multifaceted. Therefore, we have to think carefully about what motivates our team members on a day-to-day basis. Key questions to ask ourselves: Is our team properly motivated? What is it that motivates them in the first place?

What is Motivation?

Motivation is widely regarded as a psychological state that compels an individual to act toward a desired goal; it elicits, controls, and sustains certain goal-directed behaviors. It can be considered a catalytic force or the energy to act upon or toward the desired goal. Motivation is an enormous part of success in work and in life.

Theories of motivation

There are two types of motivations one can consider: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is driven by external forces such as money or praise. Intrinsic motivation is something that comes from within and can be as simple as the joy one feels after accomplishing a challenging task, e.g., a laboratory technician who spends extra time working for validation of a new analytical method because he or she wants to get better results of internal quality. Importantly, people respond differently to various types of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

The major approaches that have shaped our understanding of employee motivation are called “motivation theories.” While different motivation theories prioritize different factors, a common theme among them is the idea that motivation is a function of extrinsic and intrinsic factors.

The earliest theories of motivation are content theories, also called “needs theories.” These theories try to identify what one’s needs are and then relate motivation to the fulfilling of those needs. The major content theories are Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Herzberg’s Motivation- Hygiene, McClelland’s Human Motivation, Alderfer’s ERG (existence, relatedness, and growth), Mayo’s Motivation, and McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y.

Maslow's Heirarchy of needs
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory, a need is defined as a physiological or psychological deficiency that requires satisfaction.2 Employees have five levels of needs: physiological, safety, social, self-esteem, and self-actualization. Maslow argued that lower-level needs must be satisfied before the next higher-level need will motivate employees.

Theory X and Theory Y

Theory X and Theory Y are two contrasting sets of assumptions about workforce motivation that form the basis for two managerial styles. 

Theory X stresses the importance of strict supervision, external rewards, and penalties. This management style supposes that the average employee has little to no ambition, shies away from work or responsibilities, and is individual-goal-oriented.

Theory Y highlights the motivating role of job satisfaction and encourages workers to approach tasks without direct supervision. This management style assumes that people in the workforce are internally motivated—they enjoy their labor and will work to better themselves without a direct reward in return.3

In the laboratory, it might be best to take a blend of the two approaches. With employees who fit into the motivated and self-reliant categories, a hands-off approach is best. This might apply to tasks that are focused on being creative, such as your team members engaging in research studies or quality improvement projects. On the other hand, if you have a routine clinical laboratory service or some other repetitive-task area—such as that of a phlebotomy unit—it is likely the staff in that setting are not particularly self-driven. So with that part of the business, you may need to keep managers or supervisors in close contact with the subordinates at all times in order to keep operations on schedule.

Process theories are concerned with how motivation occurs and what kinds of processes can influence our motivation. Adam’s Equity, Victor Vroom’s Expectancy, Taylor’s Motivation, Bandura’s Self-Efficacy, Skinner’s Reinforcement, and Locke’s Goal-Setting are examples of process theories.

Although these motivation theories continue to be important today, no single one explains all aspects of motivation or lack thereof. Nonetheless, each theoretical explanation can serve as the basis for the development of techniques to motivate staff.

How to motivate employees

Although money is the most expensive way to motivate employees, it remains the first choice for many leaders. Numerous studies, however, show that big bonuses are less effective than smaller, unexpected gestures because gifts create a relationship while bonuses are purely transactional.

According to Daniel Pink, to motivate team members in the correct way, most people require three major drivers:4

  1. Autonomy
    Employees need autonomy over some (or all) of the four main aspects of work: when they do it (time), how they do it (technique), whom they do it with (team), and what they do (task).
  2. Mastery
    Employees need to become better at something that matters to them. Daniel Pink uses the term “Goldilocks tasks” to describe those tasks that are neither overly difficult nor overly simple, allowing the employees to extend themselves and develop their skills further. To foster an environment conducive to mastery, four essentials are required: autonomy, clear goals, immediate feedback, and Goldilocks tasks.
  3. Purpose
    Steps must be taken to fulfill employees’ natural desire to contribute to a cause that is greater and more enduring than they are. Employees who understand the purpose and vision of their organization, and how their individual roles contribute to this purpose, are more likely to be satisfied in their work.

With these drivers in mind, Table 1 summarizes the best practices for laboratory leaders to motivate their employees; it also includes approaches that do not work. The common theme among approaches that do not work is that they serve the leader, not the employee.5 If we want to direct our good intentions into more meaningful expressions of recognition, we need to consider the alternatives.

Table 2 lists practical ways for laboratory leaders and managers to communicate with their staff in order to increase staff engagement.

Table 1. Motivation Dos and Don’ts for Laboratory Leaders

What doesn't workWhat worksHow to do it
Apply pressure; Demand accountabilityEncourage autonomy
  • Invite choice; illuminate boundaries; explore options within boundaries
  • Present goals and timelines as valuable information necessary for achieving agreed-upon outcomes
  •  Help re-frame goals as relevant
Ignore feelingsDeepen relatedness
  • Show empathy and caring; acknowledge and validate people’s emotions
  • Offer pure and informational feedback rather than personal or evaluative praising
  • Share information about yourself and the organization; discuss your intentions openly
Discount learningDevelop competence
  • Emphasize learning goals, not just performance goals
  • Ask, “What did you learn today?”
  • Provide training and appropriate leadership style for the person’s level of development
Enable sabotaging behaviorsPromote mindfulness
  • Encourage self-reflection
  • Ask open-ended questions that illuminate options
  • Facilitate the generating of options and alternative implementation strategies
Rely on powerAlign with values
  • Help individuals align goal(s) to their work-related value(s)
  • Explore natural interest in and enthusiasm for the goal
  • Recognize mistakes as part of learning and growth
Focus on metrics without meaningConnect to purpose
  • Help individuals connect the goal to their work-related or life purpose
  • Frame actions in terms of the welfare of the whole; focus on contribution to the greater good
  • Provide rationale and big picture

Table 2. Motivating With Words

Tips to motivate staffPhrase
Personally thankThank you for...
Meet and listenThat's an interesting idea.
Provide specific and frequent feedbackYou were right about...
Recognize, reward, and promote performanceHave a great day!
I'm glad you are here.
That was amazing.  Tell me how you did it.
Keep staff informedI have an update.
Involved staff in decision makingWhat do you think?
Come on in...
Create a partnership with each employeeLet's figure this out together.
No blame, no shame; be open and build trustI trust you.
Celebrate successesYou earned it!
Let's have some fun.

When motivation is lacking

A lack of motivation can manifest itself as a decrease in productivity, e.g., someone who was once productive stops producing consistent results. Studies have shown that focusing on negatives in this situation tends to create fatigue and resistance, whereas looking for opportunities to build on strengths leads to inspiration, motivation, and overcoming challenges.5

As depicted in the motivational cycle (below), the laboratory manager will first need to determine the cause of this decrease in productivity. Is it an interpersonal problem in the laboratory? An experimental obstacle? A personal crisis? Next, the manager should discuss the problem with his or her staff member to try to jointly develop a strategy to address the issue or minimize the impact of the team member’s actions.7

According to Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace Report, using data collected from more than 31 million respondents, only 21 percent agree their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.6 Seemingly, many employers fail to understand the significance of motivation in accomplishing the mission and vision of the organization. Even when they understand the importance of motivation, they lack the skill and knowledge to provide a work environment that truly fosters employee motivation and organizational health. Hence, employers and laboratory managers should remain up to date with the latest and most useful motivation methods and techniques, but also be brave enough to experiment with new ways of motivating their workforce.


  1. Yenice, S. “The leader as visionary and motivator.” In: Leadership Basics for Clinical Laboratory Professionals, ed. Sedef Yenice and Edward Randell. (2018): 48-75.
  2. Maslow, AH. “Motivation and personality.” New York: Harper and Row. (1954).
  3. Shanks, NH. “Management and motivation. 2nd Ed.” In: Introduction to Health Care Management, ed. Sharon B. Buchbinder and Nancy H. Shanks. Burlington (MA): Jones and Barlett Publishers. (2012): 23-35.
  4. Pink, DH. “Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us.” Riverhead Books, U.S.; Reprint edition, 2011.
  5. Carucci, R. “What not to do when you’re trying to motivate your team.” Harvard Business Review, July 16, 2018.
  6. State of the American Workplace. Gallup. (2017).
  7. “Laboratory leadership in science.” In: Making the Right Moves. A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, 2nd Ed., ed. Laura Bonetta. Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Burroughs Wellcome Fund. (2011): 67-69.

Sedef Yenice, PhD

Sedef Yenice, PhD, is a professor of biochemistry and clinical chemistry and has been in the field of laboratory management for over 27 years. She works at the Gayrettepe Florence Nightingale Hospital in Istanbul, Turkey. She has served as chair of the International Federation of Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine, Committee on Clinical Laboratory Management, since 2014.