• I work as a research assistant in a lab. Part of my job involves following up with our research subjects, and scheduling their appointments. I have been working at this position since late November of 2016. This is the first job in my field that I have held.

  • After being hired, I and a colleague hired at the same time were trained by the person who previously held this position for about 1.5 weeks before they left for a new job in another city. There are currently no employees on our team that worked in this position prior to my employment.


  • Over the last several months, my supervisor has mentioned to my team that productivity has been low (The # of research subjects scheduled/# of subjects who completed a follow-up). We've attempted to bring productivity up, however the month-to-month average remains fairly steady.

  • Being concerned that I am not meeting my employers expectations, I have looked into past productivity records to determine more accurately the goals my team should be meeting, and if a low productivity at this time of year is to be expected/has been a trend in the past.

  • According to productivity reports from 2014-2017 my team was above average in productivity for the 2017-2018 year. The most recent year that outperformed us was 2014-2015, but the team responsible for that was double the size it currently is.


  • How should I respond when my supervisor brings up productivity being low, knowing what I now know? I am hesitant to mention that I've looked at past productivity reports, and our productivity is not low relative to the last several years. I'm worried my supervisor will take this the wrong way somehow.

  • Should I pro-actively bring this up? I was hoping to ask our PI (Princial Investigator, actual boss, not my supervisor) for a potential raise soon, however hashing out this 'low-productivity' issue may be better to do beforehand?

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    Have you asked your manager about your productivity being low compared to what? Perhaps he is comparing it with some expectations and not past trends. Try asking that first before bringing up the research you did.
    – DarkCygnus
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 18:22
  • I have not. I believe he is comparing it with expectations and not past trends. My issue is whether or not to mention that past trends indicate we are performing at the level of any reasonable expectations. Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 18:25
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    It would be better to turn that belief into fact by asking (you don't want to be dead and alive ;) ). That way you can respond better to this situation.
    – DarkCygnus
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 18:28
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    @Schrodinger'sStat - So ask your manager for clarification.
    – Donald
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 18:31
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    With this amount of changes in the group, I would see it as normal if the productivity actually went down. I trust you it did not, as it seems you both are working as jack-of-all-trades and thus know what is happening in all parts of the work. I would say, bring up this general situation with your manager and offer to discuss reasonable expectations of what can be done so you are all on one page. Doing so now will give you a chance to resolve any conflicts before they even arise.
    – skymningen
    Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 14:40

2 Answers 2


Usually hoping the issue will go away without talking about it is not a win.

So my recommendation would be that you DO bring up your info, but not in an antagonistic way. This doesn't have to be "I'm right, you're wrong, here's the data". It can be "I'm interested in how YOU are measuring productivity, because here's my measurements and they don't line up with what you're saying".

For all you (at least based on the info here...) the way you are measuring productivity and the way your boss is measuring it could be completely different. Even if you both are using the same numbers to mean the same thing, you may find after a discussion that the boss is looking at some part of the work differently.

Some thoughts on how to come across well with this:

  • Don't wait for your boss to make a public statement about productivity - get some time 1 on 1 to talk through it. If this becomes a public discourse, it's a lot harder for the person in power to admit to being wrong without loosing face.

  • Set the perspective - you CARE about productivity (a good thing!), you make the effort to look up metrics over years to see how the team was doing (good thing!), you care about responding to your boss' concern (good thing!) - there's nothing bad in anything you've done. Frame it that way when opening up the discussion - "hey boss, I was concerned when you spoke about the need to improve our productivity - and so I did some research... unless there's something I'm missing, we've never been more productive per person than we are now..."

  • Ask what you're missing - it's much easier to have a Q&A discussion than a yes/no discussion Do a quick summary of your method and your math, and then ask for clarification. That way, if either of you is missing something, you'll start to work toward an answer.

  • Keep your mind open to the possibility that this might not be a dig on your team. Even if your boss said that team productivity was low, he may yet mean that although productivity is completely normal (or even better than normal) for the team, it's lower than it needs to be if your team is going to meet the goals it must meet. External drivers don't account for human limits, unfortunately. :( But with your numbers, maybe you and your boss can have a good discussion about how to address the problem.

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    And, really, would it make sense to criticize a research assistant for seeking out and finding relevant data and statistical trends? How can boss not see that coming? Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 22:08

First off, I wouldn't read too much into this. Many supervisors in positions like this focus on a metric and see it as their job to improve that metric, often by simply telling their staff to work on it. It's not a particularly effective management style, but it's a very common one due to it being easy.

As far as how you should handle it, you need to turn the criticism ("productivity is low") into a plan. That should really be your boss's job, but it is likely you're going to have to take the lead on that if your boss isn't providing constructive criticisms and instead just general ones.

You can go about it something like this. Let's say your next meeting with your boss starts out like this:

Productivity rates are still too low, folks.

You can then start to direct things a bit:

Can we talk about some strategies for improving productivity?

Then maybe you get a bit of a bite:

Sure, what did you have in mind?

Then you need to have some ideas to start off the conversation.

Well, I noticed that our productivity rate is a bit higher than it was in 2015-2016. One possible reason for that is we started mentioning the free gift a bit earlier in the call. Maybe if we added a second mention of the free gift that would improve things?

This both starts the conversation in a problem-solving direction, and also leads to you looking like you're part of the solution - and a positive for promotions, especially if it actually works.

Another consideration is that you might push a bit to get an idea of what your boss considers "good" productivity. This is generally true for any metric; you should always know what the target rate is. If your productivity is 20%, and your boss's target is 25%, you can start working on strategies to show incremental improvements - 21%, 22%, etc., and then when the conversation comes up again you can show how you're getting closer to the target rate.

You also can have conversations about why he/she thinks that's a reasonable target. Do other research studies have that rate? Is that a rate that's needed for your study's statistical tests to be more powerful or even valid? It's possible he/she thinks that's a good rate but doesn't have a reason; you might be able to push him/her to do some research into what the rate is in other similar studies, or even do your own research. I work in a similar business - survey research - and there is a ton of research on conversion rates out there.

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