Managing change in the laboratory

Feb. 19, 2015

During the implementation of new equipment in a clinical laboratory the following scenario can unfold: Laboratory staff are unsure of its capabilities and struggle with the validation process. Elements such as reagent availability, instrument training, installation, and operation qualification are not fully understood, and no clear validation criteria is in place to ensure all applicable policies and procedures are followed. 

What happened that enabled this situation to develop? Usually, the lab director did not fully recognize the process of change that would be associated with putting the new instrument into clinical use. An opportunity was missed for successful validation of the instrument, and that had a negative impact on productivity and morale. The knowledge, skills, and abilities required to lead laboratory employees through change require more than just technical ability on the leader’s part to be successful. Lab leaders, as well versed as they are in the technology, in instrumentation, processes and systems, regulatory compliance, and patient engagement, sometimes fail to manage the emotional component of change. The emotional component requires an understanding of how change affects human behavior.

Humans very often resist change because it goes against our natural desire to achieve some form of equilibrium. Equilibrium in the laboratory equates to the mastery of knowledge and skills required for employees to be successful. As employees are learning new skills and gaining knowledge of a changed process or instrument, they are seeking to return to equilibrium. 

Familiarity, predictability, and change

Change destabilizes equilibrium, and employees need to become familiar with and have the ability to predict the outcomes of their tasks. Leaders can enable or hinder employees’ abilities to re-establish familiarity and predictability based on how they manage change. Frustrations can arise when employees are faced with a level of unfamiliarity and a lack of direction for their workday. Familiarity and predictability allow for the mastery of knowledge and skills which are precursors for innovation. This is why it is important to engage those affected in the process of change as soon as possible. 

Developing a vision and strategy and communicating the change vision speaks to the importance of re-establishing familiarity and allowing for predictability. Leaders cannot simply focus on their laboratory or department’s outcomes. They must consider how their employees’ outputs align and support other interconnected laboratories and departments as well. So where does a leader begin? 

New technology might cause some staff to be energized and excited; others might be anxious about their ability to learn, for instance, new software and instrumentation. Some might feel grief over the loss of the comfortable knowledge—or fear that their skills are being replaced by the new instrument. They may wonder if their skills will still be valued. In addition, other support personnel (quality, IT, maintenance) who do not understand the new technology may be challenged to develop a new support model—and they may react in different ways to the challenge. It is the lab director’s responsibility to help these groups embrace change.

Navigate the emotional response to change

Managing the emotional reactions of staff requires establishing an action plan that aligns with and supports the R&D organizational objectives as well as acknowledges and responds to emotions. Here are some tips for lab leaders on managing the emotional component of change—the emotional stages that many employees will go through.

Fear and anger

  • Develop a communication strategy and plan that aims to keep employees current throughout the life cycle of the change.
  • Trust employees with information. This helps to mitigate fear and anger and reduces anxieties.
  • Educate employees on the different stages associated with the change model and help employees recognize where they are in the process. Give them the tools needed to be successful:
    • Clear objectives, direction, and goals
    • Information, resources, and training
    • Assignments that align with their knowledge and skills
    • Timely feedback and positive reinforcement


  • Clearly define how you will monitor and measure success, both in terms of deliverables and timelines. This will help mitigate jockeying for what employees’ perceive to be in their best interests.
  • Share the value you place on teamwork and reward accordingly. Enable the successful transition from “I” to “We.”
  • Hold individuals and teams accountable for deliverables. Also, seek feedback to learn what you need to do to support the initiative and their success.

Denial and passivity

  • As author Stephen Covey once, wrote, “Seek first to understand.” If employees are in denial and/or are exhibiting passive-aggressive behaviors, first ask yourself—and employees—what is needed from you. 
  • Don’t just talk about the urgency and importance of the change; let your actions speak about that. Actively show support, demonstrate interest and concern, and gain trust.
  • Recognize your own struggles in managing these emotions and the change. Establish ways to manage your emotional health and stability.


  • Identify lessons learned and take steps to prevent recurrence of negative behaviors. Engage employees in identifying and developing action plans required for continuous improvement.
  • Seek feedback on what you could have done better as a leader to support employees. Seize the opportunity to learn and grow.
  • And as one colleague once shared, “Treasure what you measure and measure what you treasure.” The success of the change is defined by its desired benefits. How will you know?

Change is the one constant

As lab leaders seek to effectively manage employees through changing technologies and regulatory requirements, it is important for them to fully grasp how change affects human behavior and engagement. Remember that change is rarely stress-free, so the importance of doing whatever can be done to maintain the emotional health of employees cannot be overstated. Invite employees to discuss what they need in order to be successful with the change initiative. As you begin to listen and learn from employees, the trust you grow will be your most powerful ally during any change initiative.