I once had a manager who equated managing his research group to being the father of a large, unruly family. Such was his personal tact that he often brought this up in group meetings. However, the analogy has some truth to it. As children mature and gain adult skills, they push for more freedom in their personal lives. They use their peers as metrics to define appropriate levels of freedom and personal autonomy according to Christopher Daddis, psychology professor at The Ohio State University, who published his research in the journal Child Development.


Professional Development in the Lab


Can the analogy be made that expanding the boundaries of personal authority is a normal part of professional development in the laboratory? I think so. Undergraduate and new graduate students normally begin their research careers working under the close supervision of their professors, post-docs, experienced graduate students and more experienced undergraduate research students.  As they develop laboratory experience, they can be trusted to work safely. They also better understand what they are studying and what their results mean. Thus they don’t need to rely on others for advice so frequently.


The same is true in industry but with a different emphasis. New employees usually have the scientific knowledge to do their job but often need coaching on the employer’s specific technology and what related work was previously done in the employer’s laboratories. Where the new employee really needs coaching and advice from managers and mentors is on how to manage others such as technicians assigned to them, procedures to get supplies, who to see regarding specific questions and the general workplace culture.


The Maturation Process


As new employees gain the needed knowledge and experience, like teenagers growing up, they seek more autonomy. This is when dissatisfaction can arise. Daddis’ research indicated that teens' perceptions of peer freedom predicted desired levels of autonomy. However, teens consistently overestimated the actual levels of their peers' autonomy, assuming that others had more freedoms than they did. Is the same true of new employees? I know that when beginning my industrial career I observed the interactions between other recent hires and our manager and mentors. I would note when other new employees would get to go to conferences and seemed to be working more independently than I.


It is this desire for increased autonomy that can lead to frayed relationships with managers and mentors. It is easy to settle into patterns of behavior with inexperienced employees and remain in these patterns even though recent hires are gaining new capabilities and can work more independently. Managers and mentors need to realize that the recent hires they supervise are maturing in their capabilities and need to be allowed more autonomy.


When recent hires are ready for increased autonomy varies from one individual to another. It depends on their personalities, how well they work with others and how rapidly they absorb the technical knowledge they need to work independently. Managers’ and mentors’ supervisory styles also can affect how quickly new hires develop to the point when they are ready to work independently and supervise others.


Of course, recent hires talk to each other and often rely on these peers to gauge the reasonableness of their own desires for additional freedoms.