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The 'Welcome Letter': A Useful Tool for Laboratories and Teams

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Abstract

The ability to clearly set expectations is an important leadership characteristic. However it is very common for individuals heading up research laboratories or scientific collaborations to struggle with, or not identify the advantages of, explicitly communicating what they expect of the people working in their lab or participating on their team, not to mention what the participants can expect in return. Here we describe a 'Welcome Letter' as a tool that can be used in the scientific setting to effectively create a framework for working relationships and serve as a scaffold for building trust. The 'Welcome Letter' enables the lab leader to articulate expectations prior to incorporating new members into the group. Scientific teams can use the letter in much the same way, crafting it together to develop a shared vision for the functioning of the collaboration and once crafted, sharing it with new team members.
Cite this article: Michelle Bennett L, Maraia R, Gadlin H (2014) The ‘Welcome Letter’: A Useful Tool for Laboratories and Teams. J Transl Med Epidemiol
2(2): 1035.
Journal of
Translational Medicine &
Epidemiology
Special Issue on
Collaboration Science and Translational Medicine
Edited by:
Gaetano Lotrecchiano
Assistant professor of Clinical Research and Leadership and of Pediatrics at the George Washington, University School of
Medicine and Health Sciences, USA
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*Corresponding author
Michelle Bennett L, Division of Intramural Research,
NHLBI, NIH, 10 Center Drive, Bethesda Maryland,
20892, USA, Tel: 301-451-0036; Fax: 301-480-5775; Email:
Submitted: 10 May 2014
Accepted: 31 July 2014
Published: 02 August 2014
ISSN: 2333-7125
Copyright
© 2014 Michelle Bennett et al.
OPEN ACCESS
Keywords
•Setting expectations
•Team science
•Collaboration
•Laboratory management
Commentary
The ‘Welcome Letter’: A Useful
Tool for Laboratories and
Teams
Michelle Bennett L1*, Richard Maraia2 and Howard Gadlin3
1Division of Intramural Research, NHLBI, NIH, 10 Center Drive, Bethesda Maryland, USA
2Intramural Research Program, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health
and Human Development National Institutes of Health, USA
3Center for Cooperative Resolution, OD, NIH, 31 Center Drive, Bethesda Maryland, USA
Abstract
The ability to clearly set expectations is an important leadership characteristic.
However it is very common for individuals heading up research laboratories or
scientic collaborations to struggle with, or not identify the advantages of, explicitly
communicating what they expect of the people working in their lab or participating on
their team, not to mention what the participants can expect in return. Here we describe
a ‘Welcome Letter’ as a tool that can be used in the scientic setting to effectively
create a framework for working relationships and serve as a scaffold for building
trust. The ‘Welcome Letter’ enables the lab leader to articulate expectations prior to
incorporating new members into the group. Scientic teams can use the letter in much
the same way, crafting it together to develop a shared vision for the functioning of the
collaboration and once crafted, sharing it with new team members.
COMMENTARY
There are many ways things can go wrong in relationships
whether they be in a personal or a work related setting.
Underlying many problems within relationships in laboratories
is a failure on the part of the Principal Investigator (PI) to make
his/her expectations explicit. A PI’s statement of expectations
can provide guidance for the handling of problematic situations
within a lab. In the absence of explicit guidance interpersonal
       
following scenario: Post-doc A goes to her PI to report a complete
breakdown in her working relationship with Post-doc B. She
reports that Post-doc B has been using her reagents without
asking and has continued to do so even after Post-doc A have
spoken directly with Post-doc B about this. To make matters
worse, Post-doc B recently sent Post-doc A the methods section
for a paper he was writing up for submission to a journal and
asked Post-doc A to describe in detail how the reagents were
made so it could be included in the paper and didn’t even have
the decency to offer Post-doc A credit. The PI, irritated both by
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Michelle Bennett et al. (2014)
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J Transl Med Epidemiol 2(2): 1035 (2014) 2/4
the account of what had happened and by the fact that she now
had a problem Post-doc to deal with, called Post-doc B in for a
dressing down. But not for a moment did the PI think that the
situation might have been, at least to some degree, her fault.
Many PIs seem to assume that their expectations about how
the lab functions make so much sense that they do not have to
      
who do not meet their expectations they often attribute the
problem to the lab member’s personal failings. Unfortunately this
can result in loss of trust, miscommunication, and frustration on
both sides.
Of course, it is not only individual laboratories that
       

collaborations, especially if the collaborating scientists fail to make
explicit their expectations for the conduct of the research project,
the sharing and analysis of data and roles and responsibilities
for preparing manuscripts. If one also takes into account the
range of differences that are often involved in collaborations
- different disciplinary expertise, institutions, nationalities,
languages, and cultures–the potential for misunderstanding and
miscommunication is considerable.
One important element of being an effective, contributing
member of a group is having a clear sense of what is expected
of oneself and other members of the group, and knowing what
criteria the group leader(s) will use in making decisions and
     
         
workgroups in that interpersonal and group dynamics contribute
considerably to their functioning.
In the study titled “How, When and Why Bad Apples Spoil
the Barrel: Negative Group Members and Dysfunctional Groups”
Felps et al. [1] described the disruptive effects that members who
“withhold effort…express negative affect, and violat [e] important
interpersonal norms (p.175)” have on group functioning. Felps’
study dovetails nicely with the work of Tyler and Blader on
identity and prosocial behavior in groups, which has shown that
the more strongly people identify with a group the more effort
they make toward realizing its mission and the more closely
they adhere to its norms and rules [2]. In our (LMB and HG)
       
the group increases when the mission is clear and the norms and
rules are explicit.
         
       
result, in part, from failure to state expectations explicitly. Even
something as simple and apparently obvious as work hours, when
not addressed, can cause a great deal of stress for an investigator
and uncertainty among lab members. For someone just starting a
laboratory it can come as a surprise that they can actually tell an
employee what hours they should be at work contributing to the
lab mission, let alone how to interact with lab mates.
     
to clearly state expectations often leads to serious dysfunction.
For example, in some cases the very differences in expertise that

that subverts the effectiveness of the research team.
Many years ago, one of us (RM), recognizing the importance
of providing clarity for all manner of topics in the laboratory,
sat down and crafted a letter to the fellows and technicians
working for him in his lab. His goal was to communicate clearly
his expectations of them while also making sure they understood
what they could count on from him. The contents of the letter
have changed with time and feedback. Now, anyone who
expresses interest in working in RM’s laboratory is provided the
‘Welcome to My Lab’ letter as a prelude to discussing whether
this is an environment in which the fellow or technician would be
comfortable working in. The letter provides a clear framework
          
fellows’ training program; expectations regarding work habits,
relationships among lab members, participation in meetings
and other activities, record keeping, and presentations are all
laid out. The letter also details training, career development, and
other practical aspects that the lab members can expect from
him and his program. Finally, the letter describes the dimensions
along which the fellow’s performance is evaluated, the mentoring
offered, and how authorship and other decisions are made. A
checklist of potential letter topics is included in Table 1.
To help trainees gain the expertise and experiences they
need to move onto the next step in their career trajectory
      
and coaching. A ‘Welcome Letter’ can set out guidelines on how
the fellow will be supervised, mentored, sponsored, and even
         
participation by both parties, the letter can also make clear the
fellow’s responsibility to contribute to each of these component
parts. For example, in RM’s letter, there is a networking section
that spells out some of the possible ways the PI will sponsor the

the fellow for helping review manuscripts, recommending them
for talks at meetings, and introducing them to other scientists. Of
course, fellows need to perform well in these situations to earn
this kind of advocacy by the principal investigator.

every function for every trainee. Some investigators can provide
great supervision but might be less comfortable or skilled in some
aspects of mentoring. In these instances the ‘Welcome Letter’
could clearly articulate that additional mentors may be engaged
to support the fellow’s personal and professional development.
In the course of HG’s work as the NIH Ombudsman, he sees
many problem situations that could have been avoided if only
peoples’ expectations had been made explicit at the outset of

he realized at once how valuable it was. Simple in structure and
approach it read more like a statement of personal philosophy
than a bureaucratic reminder of rules and regulations. As a
person at the NIH who mediates disputes between scientists
and is therefore often invited to give talks about productively

PIs establish effective relationships with fellows and reducing
the chances of and damage caused by misunderstandings and
           
PIs at NIH. After the presentation, many of the PIs independently
 
spite of this demonstrated enthusiasm on the part of the junior
investigators, the suggestion that PIs consider developing a
‘Welcome to my Lab Letter’ is sometimes met with resistance.
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Michelle Bennett et al. (2014)
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J Transl Med Epidemiol 2(2): 1035 (2014) 3/4
While some scientists immediately see the letter as the
answer to some of the issues they faced in the lab, others resist
the very idea. Several have stated that they do not want to be
obligated to those in their labs as a result of making promises.
Others are concerned that a ‘Welcome Letter’ does not allow
for appropriately individualized treatment of fellows and staff.
And some just didn’t want to be bothered to fully articulate their
expectations. Some PIs were reluctant based on ‘principle’ or they
prefer a ‘hands-off’ type of approach, non-interference, or what
is sometimes referred to as the ‘sink or swim’ method. Indeed
there are some senior scientists who simply do not believe in
mentoring and others who would never try to have such direct
  
which they see as inappropriate for science. However, many
scientists, especially those early in their careers, have responded
very positively to the ‘Welcome Letter’ idea. Perhaps not
surprisingly, mid-level investigators who have dealt with a major
misunderstanding in the lab or collaborative and have spent
months trying to reinstate a positive group dynamic also see
the wisdom in this approach. It is worth noting that when LMB
and HG have discussed the ‘Welcome Letter’ at universities and
medical schools, it has generally elicited considerable interest
      
reports of its successful implementation.
It should be noted that many who committed themselves
to crafting a letter found the task of explicitly stating their
expectations more of a challenge than expected, it ultimately was

their lab to function and their staff to behave and interact. Often
they found the exercise actually helped them to become clearer in
their own minds, which increased clarity translating into a better

         
[2] such that trainees in labs using the ‘Welcome Letter’ might
well identify more strongly with the lab and therefore be more
committed to its success. At one level this seems obvious: if you
believe your success is intrinsically connected to the success of
the lab you are in, it is directly in your interest to help the lab
succeed.
The ‘Welcome Letter’ is an investment in mentoring. It
expresses in a non-explicit manner that the author cares about
the performance of the lab members, their achievement, and
their career development. It also provides a concrete model of
an acceptable mentoring style that the lab member can take with
them. Presently there is no hard empirical data supporting the
usefulness of the ‘Welcome Letter’ but there are many anecdotal
accounts of its value. We hope that adding the concept of the
‘Welcome Letter’ to the literature may lead to some systematic


        
overwhelmingly positive. They indicated that the letter helped
set out the expectations, which in turn helped them feel grounded
in their research environments. The ones that have moved on to
independent positions have crafted letters of their own to set
expectations with their staff in their current positions. Several
also recognized that the letter has had profound impact on their
own approach to mentoring trainees. Another suggested that if
all PIs created ‘Welcome Letters’ for their trainees many fewer
personnel problems would surface and went so far as to suggest
The Letter can transmit important information about:
 Goal of research group/PI vision
 
 Role of the PI or Team Leader(s) – what can be expected
 Expectations of laboratory or team members
Specific Topic Areas Could Include:
Laboratory/Team Interactions and Procedures
9Team meetings
9
9Sharing space, property, and facilities
9Time and attendance
9Vacations/Leave
9Networking and Attending Outside Meetings
9
9PI or Team Leader(s) Work habits
9Expected work habits
Conduct of research
9
9Notebooks, record keeping, sharing data
9Data presentations
9Submission of Abstracts and Presentations
9Sharing data
9Responsibility for data storage and retrieval
Communication
9Seminars and talks
9Abstracts and manuscripts
9Logistics and agendas for routine meetings
9Expectations for participation and/or contribution
9Process to follow if there is a disagreement
Authorship & Collaborations/Sharing Credit
9
9Ongoing projects
9Process for regular review and revision
9Acknowledgments
Career Development
9Training in science
9
9Personal Interactions - professionalism
9
9Promoting the careers of more junior members
9Opportunities to take on new leadership roles
Evaluation
9
9Reference Letters
Scientific Administration & Leadership
9Manuscript review
9Grantsmanship
Mentoring
9Finding a mentor (or mentors)
9Mentoring, sponsoring, coaching others
Institutional and Local Resources
9Employee assistance program/counseling
9Housing
9Local information
Table 1: Potential Topics for a “Welcome Letter”.
Central
Michelle Bennett et al. (2014)
Email:
J Transl Med Epidemiol 2(2): 1035 (2014) 4/4
it could help avoid mismatches between PIs and trainees. One
negative comment did align with some people’s perception of
the letter that it can initially strike trainees as overly formal. At
the same time, that person described the overall experience of

It is, of course, up to the PI or team leader as to what topics
are addressed in the letter. Some additional topics not yet
mentioned include expectations for the use and care of shared
       
meetings, attending conferences, developing job seminars or
data presentations, and submitting abstracts or manuscripts.
Additional elements can provide guidance in the areas of
networking, conduct of research, authorship and collaboration,
     
grantsmanship, and a process for managing disagreement and
        
       
        
         

and institutional guidelines.
Taking into consideration that the trainees and other staff in a
lab most likely come from a very wide range of different cultural
and organizational backgrounds some problems can be avoided
by addressing even mundane matters such as work hours and
temporal overlap with the PI and/or other staff, how one is
expected to use their time, and expectations about professional
conduct in the lab.
Becoming self-conscious about running a lab can also
contribute to effectively leading interdisciplinary research teams.
      
        
setting clear expectations for all the research participants [3,4].
A natural extension of the ‘Welcome to My Lab’ letter is the
        
collaboration, a ‘Welcome to the Team’ letter. Such a statement
can be used in the team setting, as a scaffold for establishing trust,
articulating the team’s vision, and assuring everyone knows what
to expect of everyone else.
The topics covered by the ‘Welcome to the Team’ letter can
certainly overlap and touch on some of the same issues as the lab

         
such as developing the project vision, sharing credit, collecting
and considering all participant input, making group decisions,
promoting the careers of the more junior participants, mentoring
for team science, and managing power dynamics. Understanding
how the various interactions and transactions within the team
will be handled allows team members to concentrate more fully
        
even just the act of formulating a ‘Welcome to our Team’ letter
can help considerably in sharpening the sense of shared mission
and establishing common norms among all participants in the
collaboration.
Over the past several years LMB and HG have included
discussion of the ‘Welcome Letter’ in team science workshops
conducted at the NIH as well as at a variety of medical research
centers in North America. Informal feedback from participants in
those workshops indicates that the ‘Welcome to the Team’ letter
approach has now been used by a number of interdisciplinary
groups and its utility has been very positive. Some letters have
been written by the leader and then shared with the group.
Other letters have been written in a more collaborative fashion.
Regardless of approach, the letter provides a tool for the group
to discuss the dynamics of their working relationship as well
    
revision.
A ‘Welcome Letter’ sets expectations in the laboratory or for
a collaborative research team. Setting expectations and being
clear about criteria, boundaries, and behavior can help preempt
          
believe that in both settings, lab or team members will appreciate
knowing what is expected of them and what they can expect from
the experience. While this is only one component to the more
complex dynamic of people working together in the laboratory
or team setting, a mechanism for clearly communicating
expectations does provide a solid foundation upon which to
       
agenda.
A copy of Rich’s ‘Welcome Letter’ is available at teamscience.
nih.gov.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
The authors would like to thank Dr. Maraia’s past trainees for
their feedback about the ‘Welcome Letter’ approach including
   
Ying Huang, Tek Lamichhane, Aneeshkumar Arimbasseri, and

Intramural Research Program on Genomics of Differentiation in
the Eunice Kennedy Shriver
Human Development and the Division of Intramural Research in
the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.”
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Michelle Bennett L, Maraia R, Gadlin H (2014) The ‘Welcome Letter’: A Useful Tool for Laboratories and Teams. J Transl Med Epidemiol 2(2): 1035.
Cite this article
... In recent years, a number of new approaches have emerged that focus on enhancing team dynamics. For example, a "Welcome to My Lab" letter to new lab members lays out expectations of team membership (Bennett et al. 2014). This type of onboarding document may address a wide range of topics such as the goals of the research group, roles and responsibilities of team members and leadership, team interactions, authorship and credit, career development, mentoring, and institutional and local resources. ...
... Strategies to prevent conflict can be implemented at the individual, team, and initiative levels. For instance, at the individual level an onboarding letter (e.g., "Welcome to my Team" Letter; Bennett et al. 2014) provides a scaffold for building trust by outlining for new team members from the outset what they can expect of the team, what the team expects of new members, and what to do if members disagree. An example of a teamlevel conflict prevention strategy is the use of a pre-collaboration agreement template, also sometimes called a "prenuptial agreement for scientists" (Gadlin and Jessar 2002). ...
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... Most participants acknowledged the need for optimal communication and solid organizational planning so that the research team continued to thrive. This finding, aligned with previous research, highlights the necessity for explicitly communicating expectations for the mentees on team participation, along with clarifying expectations of the mentees (Bennett, Maraia, & Gadlin, 2014). At the team analysis level, four of the five mentors sought training opportunities for the mentees mostly within and some outside the program. ...
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