Good lab managers know how to correct troublesome behaviour

The Fine Art of Delivering a Bollocking

A bollocking – a long, loud, angry dressing down – is one of the essential tools in behaviour correction.  I’ll always remember the experience that made me realize this:

I was dive training in the pool, and I misinterpreted a signal from a fellow, so I yanked him to the surface without taking the time to surface slowly.


So my instructor gave me the harshest dressing down I’ve ever received (including my time in the Officer Training Corps) right there in the pool, treading water.  I still remember every word of it, and it still smarts a bit when I think of it.

I have never been so grateful for instruction.

The point of a bollocking is to correct behaviour.  This has to be remembered.  It isn’t to punish anyone.  It isn’t a declaration of war.  It isn’t to destroy someone else’s sense of self or to make them feel bad.  

It is to correct behaviour.  That is it.

Get this straight in your head, because nothing, nothing will torpedo your job faster than resentment between you and the lab users.  I often give new lab inductees the head’s up on this:

If you screw up one of the four basic safety points, more than once, I will shout at you.  It will be long and it will be very unpleasant for you.  You’ll feel awful.


What you will not be is hurt.  This won’t go any to the higher ups, it won’t hurt your career or your work, and it sure as hell won’t hurt you physically.  What it will do is make sure you remember this point in the future.  It will make sure that you are safe, and that your lab mates are safe.


And this won’t make us enemies.  We’ll be friends before and we’ll be friends after.  I never do this to hurt anyone or make you feel awful; I only ever do it to keep you safe and keep the lab safe.  The only purpose of this is to make damn sure you don’t forget this.


Finally, one thing it will also do is keep things in the lab.  It will make sure that we can handle any screw up on that scale amongst ourselves, with nothing going to the brass or the higher ups.

You might think that this undercuts the power of the bollocking.  The opposite is true.  No one likes being dressed down, and there is nothing that can prevent them from feeling awful during the process.  What this does do is make sure that the recipient doesn’t become consumed by pointless resentment and instead links the unpleasantness to the action.   

The actual bollocking itself, there are some basic points you need to keep in mind:

  1. It has to be used very rarely.  It retains force only if it is rare; if people get the feeling, “Oh, he’s off again”, you’ve lost this tool.  In my lab I only ever use it for a repeat infraction of the four main safety points.  
  2. It has to be purposeful.  You never, ever ‘just vent’.  It has to tied to a specific action on the part of the recipient.
  3. It cannot be personal.  You don’t ever say, “You’re stupid”.  You do say, “That was a really stupid thing to do”.  Dig into the reasons why – explain, at length, the really nasty consequences that could result from it.  Ask the person to imagine how they’d feel if they were responsible for a lab in flames or a dead colleague.  Put as much detail and causal fact into your description as possible, to make it stick.  But make sure you are attacking the worker’s actions and never the person.
  4. It has to be private.  Never ever dress someone down in front of others.  That is humiliating and degrading, and completely misses the point of this exercise.  Get someone off to one side and make sure you can’t be overheard.  Then let fly.
  5. It has to have no profanity.  This is one that is more culturally determined – some workspaces are fine with this and others are not, so it is safest not to use any, for two reasons.  The first is that it can run up against cultural and institutional ethics (putting you into more trouble than you can imagine).  The second is that it very easily derails the process from correcting behaviour to attacking a person – which, again, is a big no-no.
  6. It has to end definitively.  Once you’ve hammered your point home, you need to say “Okay, enough.  Point made.  Let’s get this fixed/make sure it doesn’t happen again.”  And then things really do need to get on.  It doesn’t matter how foolish the mistake, you cannot afford, ever, to take it personally.  You need to be able to revert to normal operations and let your unfortunate victim return to normal as quickly as possible.


There we go!  A brief primer in how to deliver this, if it should be necessary.  Just to underline, this should be necessary very, very rarely, if you are doing your job right.

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