Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

The Four Stages of Management, Part 1

Each stage of development has its challenges but the rewards are success and ease in the role of manager.

by Ronald B. Pickett
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

When I took my first management job as a supervisor, I thought, “What am I doing here? What made me think that I was qualified to do this job?” All of a sudden, I had moved from the lab bench to supervising other scientists. It was scary. This was not why I entered the field. My staff knew that I was technically competent but would I know how to interact with other managers? Would I stand up for what was right with our higher-level managers? Would I be able to support their views on important issues? Would I be fair? As for me, I wondered if the staff would do what I said. Would they compare me with the old supervisor — favorably?

Managers go through predictable stages as they assume command. Often they are left to get results with little intervention or support from superiors. Managers tend to go through the following stages:
  • Fear and Hesitation
  • Excitement, Enthusiasm, and Experimentation
  • Maturity and Leadership
  • Wisdom and Mentoring
Each stage has its challenges, growth, and development implications. Managers do not proceed through these stages at the same rate, and few managers complete the trip! Furthermore, most managers do not move through these stages at a single job. There are knowledge, skill, and attitude elements to being successful and to growing and making the transition to the next stage. 

Stage 1: Fear and Hesitation

This stage happens to new managers, as well as experienced managers moving to a new organization or a new position in their current organization.
Things to watch for:
1. Paralysis and indecision.
·        Reluctance to start doing managerial work.
·        Letting information-gathering and indecision consume you.
2. Failure to trust staff.
·        Assuming trust comes with the managerial assignment.
·        Assuming that trust is easily maintained and hard to lose.
3. Reluctance to find a confidante and/or sounding board.
·        Assuming that since you were given the job, you are expected to have all of the answers.
·        Assuming that having someone to discuss issues with is a sign of weakness.
4. Being too judgmental and critical; setting impossible standards.
·        Failure to understand that your success is now measured by the work that others do.
·        Punishing mistakes so harshly that they are not reported or are swept under the carpet.
5. “Doing the work.”
·        Spending too much time at the lab bench avoiding making tough managerial decisions.
·        Not finding satisfaction in the delayed success that comes from long-term initiatives.
Things to do:
1. Observe successful managers. Benchmark one successful manager in your organization.
·        See how she or he behaves in meetings, with staff and customers.
·        Ask questions about why he or she does certain things. What is her or his strategy?
·        See if he or she will be available to listen to your ideas and provide you with suggestions and recommendations.
2. Score early successes, get some wins, and “harvest low-hanging fruit.”
·        Make changes the staff has asked for repeatedly.
·        Think like a client. What's irritating, what’s right?
3. Be analytical; start to build a mental model of the organization.
·        Move away from responding to immediate issues, solving problems, and resolving conflict to asking “why” questions.
·        Use the scientific method to assess and implement new ideas/programs or services.
·        Look for causes of systems failures rather than simply solving problems.
4. Begin to delegate.
·        Delegate a report, a simple procedure, or attendance at a meeting so staff understanding of the issues you face is enhanced and you can concentrate on more important issues.
·        Begin a style of shared responsibility.
·        Start developing staff members with growth opportunities.
·        Model the behaviors you want to see in your staff.
5. Learn to consider your motivation and monitor your emotional reactions.
·        Monitor your emotional reactions to situations.
·        Identify, accept, and remember your emotions.
6. Practice thinking about the future.
·        Build a model of how you want the department/lab to look in three to five years.
Key to career growth: Gain a good insight and understanding of the climate of the organization. Gain the trust of your staff through observations, discussions, and conversations with them. 

Stage 2: Excitement and Enthusiasm

The enthusiastic manager’s story: “Being a manager has become a lot of fun. I know who I can trust and how far. My time is no longer filled with endless details and micromanaging. I come to work each morning with energy for dealing with problems I anticipate. I sometimes wonder if I’m spending enough time looking at long-range issues. I’ve got to improve things and I have to pace myself. My biggest problem is others can’t keep up.”
Things to watch for:
1. Early stage burnout — it seems like you need to keep your finger on everything.
·        Solving problems is addicting and gives an adrenalin rush; it can wear you down quickly.
·        Failure to monitor stress and fatigue.
2. Too much, too soon leading to overconfidence. 
·        Don’t assume you have all of the right answers.
3. Lack of focus, or spreading yourself too thin.
·        Trying to do too much.
·        Not concentrating on significant projects.
4. Seduction by power.
·        Misinterpreting the power that comes with authority.
·        Take a good look at relationships to determine if it is you or the position.
5. Reliance on a few trusted members of your staff.
·        Relying too heavily on select members of your staff.
·        Missing the potential of others to demonstrate their ability.
6. Letting skills get in the way of good management.
·        Not placing importance on interpersonal areas or emotional intelligence.
·        Failing to provide good, timely feedback, and performance targets.
Things to do:
1. Spend your time wisely.
·        Set meaningful priorities.
·        Balance short-term and long-term goals.
·        Take a vacation, exercise, enjoy your hobbies, and spend time with your family.
2. Spend time developing staff.
·        Coach and encourage the people who work with you.
·        Let the dedicated, motivated, capable members of your staff perform.
3. Set high standards and enforce them.
·        Set reasonable and challenging goals for your staff.
·        Expand your compassion and empathy for the patients and staff.
4. Gain visibility.
·        Try subtle self-effacing approaches like, “Here’s something we are trying that I thought you might be interested in…,” or “How have you handled a situation like this?”
·        Begin to practice self-promotion, because effectiveness depends on peers and seniors knowing about your successes.
·        Be authentic and genuine; be yourself!
Key to career growth: Develop a smooth operation that is ready for change and responds to challenges with ease.
Competencies that scientists bring to management include:
  • Results Orientation
  • Commitment to Learning
  • Sharing Responsibility
  • Teamwork
  • Conceptual Thinking
  • Holding People Accountable
  • Team Leadership 
These skills are extremely valuable for managers too. However the shift from an experimental orientation to one that is staff centered requires a major reorientation in thinking, hard work, and constant attention. Perhaps one of the most challenging is the shift to a future focus which is a characteristic of leaders. Employee development, motivation and loyalty, and a vision for the future of the department are long-range projects that require a very different internal reward system — the internal rewards that used to come from completing a successful experiment.
  • LEARN to realize that you can make a much bigger contribution as a manager than as an individual contributing scientist!
  • LEARN that the rewards for your work are delayed and are sometimes hard to isolate.
  • LEARN that recognition of your contribution will often be internal.
  • LEARN that your success will come from the contribution of others.

In the next issue, Part 2 of this article, we will describe the next two stages of manager development — Maturity and Leadership, and Wisdom and Mentoring. You might try to write your own story in a couple of paragraphs. Here are some questions to guide you through the process:

  • How do you feel about your job right now?
  • What gives you pleasure and fills you with pride?
  • What are your concerns and fears?
  • What are your accomplishments and your failures?
  • What skills and projects do you want to work on? 
If you want to have some fun with this concept, try answering these questions as you think your boss would answer them about you, then assess where he or she is in the development stages.  


  • Levenson D, et al. The Seasons of a Man’s Life. New York: Ballantine; 1986.
  • Goleman D. Working with Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books; 1988.
  • Pickett R, and Kennedy MM. Clin Leadersh Manag Rev. 2004; 18 Understanding and Using Organizational Politics Part 1 and 2, Mar-Apr.
  • Pickett R, and Kennedy MM.“Do Your Direct Reports Trust You?” Clin Labor Manag Rev, 1998; 12: 35–36.
  • Pickett R. Identifying and Selecting the Best Managers, Lab Manager Magazine, 2007; 2(7): 13-16.
  • Sheehy G. Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. New York: Bantam; 1976.